On Monday morning, Country Joe McDonald got a news alert on his phone. The Japanese investors had pulled out. The permits hadn’t been approved. Woodstock 50, a commemoration of the legendary 1969 music festival that had been planned for an August weekend in Watkins Glen, N.Y., was toast.
McDonald — a headliner from the original concert who had planned to revive his profane “Fixin’ to Die” call-and-response as part of a monster lineup that included Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Santana, Chance the Rapper and Halsey — called his manager.
“He didn’t know a thing,” said McDonald, 77. “I’m just glad I got my deposit.”
Another music manager, Scooter Weintraub, got an email that same morning telling him the gig was off. Weintraub had endured the ups and downs of previous Woodstock revivals: In 1994, as Sheryl Crow’s manager, he reveled in her career-defining set at the 25th anniversary, held on a farm north of New York City. Five years later, though, she returned for a 30th-anniversary concert at an old Air Force base in Rome, N.Y., an event marred by a heat wave, fires, looting and sexual assaults. “It was just a horror show,” he recalled.
Hours after the plug was pulled on Woodstock 50, where another client, Gary Clark Jr., was one of the top-billed acts, Weintraub was trying to figure out what happened.
“I don’t know whether it’s money, insurance, water, safety,” he said. “I think it would be a great bill if it could have happened. But if it can’t happen, it can’t happen.”
Yet even that isn’t clear. The cancellation was announced by Dentsu Aegis, a branch of the Japanese multinational marketing firm that had planned to underwrite Woodstock 50, with a statement asserting that “we don’t believe the production of the festival can be executed as an event worthy of the Woodstock Brand name while also ensuring the health and safety of the artists, partners and attendees.”
But late Monday, another group of organizers, which includes original Woodstock promoter Michael Lang, issued their own statement promising to bring in new partners.
“The bottom line, there is going to be a Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival, as there must be, and it’s going to be a blast,” the statement read.
There had been warning signs ahead of Monday's confusion, including missed deadlines to announce artist lineups and ticket purchase information. Artie Kornfeld, who helped put together the first Woodstock with Lang, told The Washington Post that he talked with his old friend on the phone last week. Lang, he said, told him that despite some hype about the show drawing more than 125,000 concertgoers, Woodstock 50 would more likely amass a crowd of about 30,000.
To Kornfeld, who is not involved in the venture, that sounded just fine. “That’s what I said all along,” he said. “If you want to do something that’s smooth, it doesn’t have to have zeros after the end.”
The trouble, though, is that it would cost millions to pay the more than 75 artists announced in March. Lang and his fellow organizers had projected they needed to draw more than 100,000 and charge $450 per ticket. Woodstock 50 needed the blessing of state and local officials to hold an event for that many people. Billboard reported Monday that as of this week, officials were still reviewing the festival’s applications or seeking more information and hadn’t issued permits yet, which appeared to be holding up the start of ticket sales.
“It takes a lot of passion and luck but at the end of the day, you need a permit,” said Peter Shapiro, a veteran concert promoter who helped create the jam-band-friendly Lockn’ Festival, scheduled to take place for its seventh summer this August in rustic Nelson County, Va.
“I wouldn’t completely count it out,” said Andy Gensler, the executive editor of Pollstar, the concert industry trade publication. “We don’t know if somebody is going to pick up the pieces.”
John Sebastian, the Lovin’ Spoonful founder, was supposed to play Aug. 16 — 50 years to the day after his set at the original Woodstock. He said this week he wasn’t surprised by the complications.
“Our modern atmosphere is toxic enough that it’s very hard to get into any kind of spirit of communal whatever,” he said. “It is a very hard time. For example, I was trying to imagine what the hell I was going to sing at this thing. Do you go put on your old tie-dyed jacket, which doesn’t fit, and go play ‘I had a dream last night, what a lovely dream it was’? Because the blind optimism of 1969, it just almost has no place in our modern lives now.”
Nonetheless, Sebastian said he had been looking forward to playing to such a massive audience. And he appreciated the effort to mix in contemporary artists with Woodstock originals such as John Fogerty, Canned Heat and David Crosby.
“It’s a good idea to have the Raconteurs and the Black Keys and the good bands that exist now sprinkled with a few old, furry guys,” he says. “But should we really do this? I understand how it can be a tough call.”
McDonald said he’s keeping that August Saturday open on his calendar. The original festival was also riddled with issues, forced to change sites and famously turned into a free event when the crowds flowing into the Catskills tore down the fences to get in.
“I’ll tell you one thing, we will see if anybody gives a s---, really,” McDonald said. “Maybe they’ll say, ‘We’ll just go to Coachella.’ We’ll see if that happens. But I have a feeling that this could steam along and it has legs.”