By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009
BETHEL, N.Y., Aug. 15 -- Forty years after the Woodstock concert made rock music history, thousands of music-lovers, old and young, converged Saturday on the site of the old Upstate New York farm for what was billed as a reunion for an event that defined a generation.
Only a few of the original Woodstock musicians were on hand, and the crowd, estimated at about 15,000, was a fraction of the half million or so who swarmed this isolated rural area decades ago. The farm itself, then a muddy mess, now houses the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, and the performances took place in an open-air amphitheater with most of the attendees seated picnic style on grass-covered slope.
Several impromptu reunion gatherings were held nearby, including a few hundred people camping out at a farm about a mile away. More old Woodstockers gathered around Hector's Inn in Bethel, swilling beer and listening to anyone with a guitar and an amplifier.
Crowds inside and outside the amphitheater formed a colorful sea of tie-dye T-shirts, sundresses and bandanas, with many of the Woodstock veterans distinguished by long hair and beards gone snow white, and bellies grown large under tight tank tops.
"It's funny seeing everybody getting old," said Vinny Verdi, 59, a motion picture projectionist from New Jersey, who was here as a 19-year-old for the festival in 1969.
Asked what he recalled most about his trip to Woodstock as a teenager, Verdi said, "I have no memory. Just the vibe." He added, "The music was almost secondary to the experience of just being here. It's a part of you that you like to feel every once and a while."
John Westbrook, 61, came to the first Woodstock festival when he happened to be home in Sparrow Bush, N.Y., on a break from the Navy in Vietnam. "I was stoned when I got here, stoned when I left and stoned for many years after," said Westbrook, wearing a tie-dye sleeveless T-shirt, loose-fitting tie-dye pants and a matching headband over his graying hair. "I'm surprised there are so many of us. The old ones are slowly dying."
Darlene Hargrove, 59, drove here with a group of about a dozen friends and family members from the Upstate New York town of Woodstock, for which the concert was named, although it was never meant to be held there. "I think it's wonderful," said Hargrove, wearing a bright green tie-dye T-shirt and a floppy straw hat. "It was more than a moment. It touches everyone in one form or another."
"You can feel something," she said. "You can feel it in the air."
This weekend's event seemed a marked contrast to a violent 30th anniversary concert in Rome, N.Y., in 1999, when concert-goers set bonfires, torched refrigeration trucks, bashed ATMs and caused mayhem after the performances. That upheaval raised questions about staging future anniversary festivals.
The musical acts opened just after 5 p.m., with Conor Oberst reprising Jimi Hendrix's electric guitar version of "The Star Spangled Banner" that became legendary after he performed it at Woodstock. Afterward, Big Brother and the Holding Company performed some of their hits made famous by Janis Joplin, with Sophia Ramos singing the lead. Big Brother did not play at the original Woodstock, although Joplin did, with a different band.
Hendrix and Joplin died in 1970.
Country Joe McDonald, singing and acting as emcee for the performance, tried to link the 1969 antiwar mood of the crowd to today, with U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before the show, McDonald said, "I don't think war will ever be seen the same way again, as a result of, perhaps, the Vietnam generation and the Woodstock generation."
On stage, McDonald asked the crowd for a moment of silence while he read off the names of the nine service members from Sullivan County who were killed in Vietnam, and the five killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he sang his antiwar anthem, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag."
But most of the crowd seemed to be here for the music, not the politics. "I love the music," said Matt Krulewicz, 38, from Scranton, Pa. "It's cool to see the young people following the music from 40 years ago." He added, "To see this site 40 years after -- it's really an honor to be here."
Also speaking to the crowd, before the start of the show, was Sam Yasgur, son of Max Yasgur, the local farmer who allowed his 600-acre farmland to be used as the venue after the town of Wallkill a month earlier had refused to grant the permits.
Yasgur told of how his father was brought onstage and introduced 40 years ago, and how he told the crowd, "I think you have proven something to the world. . . . Young people can get together and have three days of fun and music."
The original Woodstock, conceived by four promoters, eventually became a free concert when so many people showed up that they swarmed the ticket booths and began to tear down the fences. Since then, those promoters have been heavily involved in protecting the "Woodstock" brand. Besides the original event turning into an album and a movie, the current reunion -- called "Heroes of Woodstock" -- is being filmed exclusively by Golden Leaf Pictures for release as a DVD in October.
Several other movies and books have recently been released and timed to coincide with this 40th anniversary.