It’s been a while since I provided you all with a good Wednesday Listicle. That’s my bad. I’ve fallen behind making the lists, which is a real shame, because they’re really fun (and occasionally easy!) to make. I’m going to start trying to get back into them, and given that the last few days have been the 50th anniversary of a seminal event in U.S. history, I thought I’d take the opportunity to get back in the swing of things. And so, I thought we could take a look at some of music’s greatest offerings with the Top Ten Woodstock Performances!
Now, obviously, I have to place a caveat on this list from the get-go. I am not a 70-year-old man. I was not at Woodstock. I cannot judge every single performance and band that played there. Therefore, this list is not so much a ranking of the ten best Woodstock performances as it is a ranking of the Top Ten Musical Performances Seen In The Woodstock Documentary (side note: see Woodstock. It’s the greatest documentary ever made). And with that rule in place, I have to deem ineligible any song used that wasn’t physically seen in the film. This eliminates Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” Sweetwater, Arlo Guthrie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” or “My Generation,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” or The Band. I’m looking solely at the musical performances we get to witness onscreen, combining theatricality, screen/stage presence, musicality, and vocal power to determine the most moving, exciting, and listenable acts of the festival. This also eliminates a few performances that I really love and appreciate, including Ten Years After’s ten minute “I’m Going Home,” Janis Joplin’s electrifying “Work Me, Lord,” and John Sebastian’s touching, loving “Younger Generation.” I do, however, encourage you to go check those performances out. Now that this is established, let’s take a look at the Top Ten Woodstock Performances!
10. Sly And the Family Stone – “I Want To Take You Higher”
One of the final acts of the festival, Sly and the Family Stone’s performance has sunk into the depths of history. Most people forget that the beloved funk band performed at the festival at all. But those who have been blessed with seeing the performance near the end of the documentary enjoy a transcendent moment of musical performance. Truly capturing the works that later made them famous, Sly’s set started at 3:30 am – a remarkable feat when you consider how energetic the songs they perform really are. The highlight of the set, far and away, is the explosive “I Want To Take You Higher,” famous for its impeccable drumming, Sly’s energetic leading vocals, and the enthusiastic “Boom-shaka-laka-lakas.” The most stunning moment comes when Sly manages to encourage an exhausted crowd, at 4:00 am, to perform the call-and-response of “Higher!” That’s 500,000 teens screaming with joy and verve as a turbulent decade comes to an end. And the energy is, indeed, palpable.
9. Santana – “Soul Sacrifice”
Woodstock is mostly remembered as a show stopping concert for artists and singers alike, who prowled around the stage and saw just how far they could push their vocals. But if you’d like to see one of the most underrated performances of the entire festival, then I would suggest checking out Santana’s breathtaking instrumental “Soul Sacrifice.” Despite its lack of lyrics and its unfortunate placing in both real life (between Country Joe and John Sebastian) and the documentary (between Joe and Sly Stone), most first time viewers of Woodstock walk away commenting on the sheer power of Santana’s piece. It’s not flashy, or powerful, or even spiritual. It’s just a release of energy through the art of music, particularly through Santana’s extended guitar solos (famously inspired by the psychedelics he was on, both making the performance that much more impressive and explaining a whole lot) and an immortalized percussion solo by Michael Shrieve. Going into Woodstock, Santana was a complete unknown – they had no records, no major gigs, nothing. After this set, and this song in particular, they became one of the biggest bands on the planet. I’d say that’s a pretty impressive legacy for a filler song with no lyrics.
8. Sha Na Na – “At The Hop”
Sha Na Na is one of my favorite performances coming out of Woodstock because, really, what the hell was Sha Na Na doing up there with Hendrix, Joan Baez, Neil Young, The Who, and Janis Joplin? They’re a cheesy 50s parody band that fit more with their appearance in Grease than with the counterculture. And yet, somehow, they work. Performing choreography fitting more into the 80s Crystal Lite Dancers and singing about a fun night at The Hop, Sha Na Na’s performance works for the same reasons American Graffiti later became a hit: they mixed a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time pre-Vietnam with a youthful energy that reflected the young crowd here to enjoy music, avoid society’s rules, and live the credence of the 60s. I love the pre-Freddie Mercury energy from Donny York and Scott Powell, and something about their weird, non-hippie energy wins me over every time I see it. It is one of the stealth best performances coming out of Woodstock.
7. Richie Havens – “Motherless Child”
Without Richie Havens and the famous “Motherless Child” set, Woodstock might very well have failed. With crowds pouring in from all over, bands drunk or stuck in traffic, and audiences growing restless for entertainment, it fell to Havens to kick the festival off right and proper. And while his performance doesn’t get the same level of respect as contemporaries Hendrix and Santana, it is no less impressive. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, his “Motherless Child,” mashed up with “Freedom,” is a scream of confusion in an era defined by a string of assassinations, riots, brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests, the Vietnam War, and the election of Richard Nixon. Havens sings with pained emotion, and gives a Top Ten guitar performance, on par with Hendrix’s more-famous work closing the ceremony. Havens strums like a madman, slowly winning over the anxious crowd unaware of the phenomenon to come. It is a powerful, moment-defining performance, and Havens deserves credit for saving Woodstock before it even began.
6. The Who – “Summertime Blues”
With the exception of maybe my #3 and #2 artists, no performance has come to define a band quite like The Who’s electrifying rendition of “Summertime Blues.” While they had been performing the rockabilly classic as an angry protest piece for two years prior, it was at Woodstock it all came together to define the band and its legacy. As opposed to the silly rendition of the original that portrayed the teenage protagonist as just as ridiculous as the parents and authority figures, The Who turned the song into a champion of the counterculture movement. The voices of authority are demonic figures hammering down on the joys of youth, killing the spirit of the young in an ironic circle of life. Known for its swaggering Roger Daltrey performance, Pete Townsend’s energetic guitar playing, and John Entwistle’s vital bass (the band never played the song after his death), as well as the perfect timing of a rising sun during the piece, “Summertime Blues” captured the spirit of the generation in one flamboyant show. The band’s performance overall served as something of a greatest hits collection – a few songs from the recently released Tommy, a few older hits like “My Generation,” and so on. But if there’s one performance that bridges the eras of their careers, and defines the youthful exuberance that made The Who one of history’s most beloved bands, it’s “Summertime Blues.”
5. Country Joe And The Fish – “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag”
Truth be told, Country Joe may only be in the #5 spot because Michael Wadleigh and Thelma Schoonmaker’s filmmaking is so impressive. I could watch the split-screen sing-along for hours on end, thanks to its brilliance. But even if the production team hadn’t turned the protest anthem into a big screen spectacle, this would still serve as one of the festival’s greatest sets. A sing-along phenomenon, Country Joe captured the spirit of the festival in a simple message: that hippies were anti-war, and they wouldn’t stand for the dangerously ill-prepared intervention in Vietnam. A satirical rag prompting youths to join the Army and enjoy “mass confusion, ultimate carnage, and coming home in a box.” It’s scathing and biting and oh so angry (the infamous opening chant is uncensored here – “Give me an F! Give me a U!”), but Joe’s western twang and clever lyrics captured the crowd in a passionate, unifying moment. And it stands tall as one of the festival’s best.
4. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
There are two types of performances associated with Woodstock, on average: groundbreaking rock n’ roll showstoppers, and laidback and reflective folk songs. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young falls firmly into the latter. Having just formed as a supergroup formed from The Byrds (Crosby), Buffalo Springfield (Stills and Young), and The Hollies (Nash), the band hadn’t even released its groundbreaking first album yet when they debuted at Woodstock. And yet, when juxtaposed with Sunday’s earlier performances of Joe Cocker, Country Joe, The Band, and more, it stands out as one of the most memorable and impressive performances of the bunch. Their lead-off song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” is impressive for a litany of reasons. It’s performed completely acoustic. It’s a classical piece of music (four distinct sections, including Beatles-esque pop, harmonizing folk, poetry, and the famous “doo-doo-doo” coda). And it is vocally one of the most impressive tour-du-forces around, with four of the greatest working harmonizers coming together in a four-part orchestra. People look at Woodstock as an act of protest, and it was. But what they forget is that while Country Joe and The Who brought the protest, it was artists like CSNY who brought the peace that made the festival a success.
3. Jimi Hendrix – “Purple Haze”
I mean, of course Hendrix was going to make the list. The performance is iconic, closing out the festival in forceful fashion. But musically speaking, I don’t think Hendrix’s performance of “Purple Haze” receives the credit it deserves, even as an iconic screen presence. Yes, his National Anthem” is marvelous and poignant, and “Voodoo Child” is the film’s crowning moment, it is “Purple Haze” that defined the era. Clad in white leather jacket and a head scarf, Hendrix’s performance of “Purple Haze” was an exuberant moment, a release of energy that matched and personified a generation. It stands strong as one of the best guitar performances of all time, cocky in the way only someone who’s an all-time great is allowed to be. Audiences at the time began funneling out during Hendrix’s performance, having grown tired from the extended rain delay. It was only during the documentary’s release, when both the camera and the audience became incapable of turning away from his stage presence (only cutting on occasion to show the festival’s end and the beginning of clean-up efforts), that the performance became the icon it remains now. Jimi Hendrix has become synonymous with the Woodstock spirit, and “Purple Haze” is the performance that defines him.
2. Joe Cocker – “With A Little Help From My Friends”
One of the most iconic moments from the Woodstock documentary comes in the former of Joe Cocker’s first concert performance of his Beatles cover “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Radically rearranging the perky, chipper McCartney song, Cocker’s rendition is soulful, slow, and nostalgic, a dramatic bellowing as opposed to a drunken pat on the back. As Cocker performed the powerful, resonant piece, he thrashes around the stage for eight minutes, his body incapable of supporting the emotion of his voice (movements later parodied by National Lampoon front man John Belushi). And the camera assists Cocker whenever it can, providing revolutionary split-screen looks at his piano players, guitarists, and band members providing untrained backup vocals. The performance became so legendary that when The Wonder Years needed a theme song to define the 60s turbulent, transcendent era of confusion, peace, and coming-of-age, it went with Cocker’s reflective cover, adding to its legacy. And it all traces back to beautiful, loving performance he gave on the fields of Woodstock.
1. Joan Baez – “Joe Hill”/”Swing Low Sweet Chariot”
I knew Joan Baez was going to be #1, I just couldn’t choose between her two major setpieces portrayed in the film. Should I go with her ode to her husband, incarcerated for conscientiously objecting the draft, the elegiac “Joe Hill?” Or do I go with her famous acapella rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” performed solo as an encore and echoes through the annals of history as one of the greatest vocal performances of all time? In the end, I went with both, as a means of demonstrating the sheer power of her voice. In “Joe Hill,” Baez sings a loving, mournful tribute to Joe Hill, a famous protest and labor leader executed for his efforts to help working men – a song she dedicated to her incarcerated husband, David Harris. The song alone was emotionally rich enough to inspire the festival and its patrons, but it is the next song that serves as the vocal achievement. Returning to the stage one more time before 2:00 am, Baez belted out a stunning acapella “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that encaptured the hippie movement’s ties to Civil Rights, naturalism, and more. Her performance is so enrapturing, so profoundly gorgeous that audiences were left in stunned silence throughout. And did I mention she performed this entire set in the wee hours of the morning while six months pregnant? Baez’s performance concluded the first day of the festival, and yet it is the performance that set the tone for what Woodstock would come to represent. It was a magical musical moment, a political statement, an ode to love, a spiritual force, and a cleansing necessity, all rolled into one perfect set.
That wraps up my look at the Ten Best Woodstock Performances. Obviously, there were some terrific acts I missed, but that’s the thing about a cultural milestone: while film may help immortalize certain moments for generations to come, at the end of the day, you had to be there. Woodstock represented the end of an era, Enjorlas waving the red flag in the face of the French army as he is eliminated by the powers that be. It cannot be replicated (sorry, Woodstock 99), nor should it be. It’s about a specific time, in a specific place, when half a million young people came together in a grand spectacle of peace, love, and protest, and won over a country in a demonstration of the power of art. If you have a favorite performance you’d like to share, or a band from the era that you loved that I just didn’t mention (hell, if you were actually at Woodstock), then feel free to comment below and let me know. In the meantime, stay groovy, friends.