Just for the record: By the time we get to Woodstock 2019


Just for the record: By the time we get to Woodstock 2019

A fortnightly review of music on vinyl

Andrew Donaldson

August marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, a chaotic shambles regarded as a pivotal moment in popular culture. The event, billed as “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”, drew an audience of 500,000 or more to a farm outside Bethel in upstate New York where they took in more than 30 top rock and folk acts of the late 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, the Grateful Dead, and Sly & The Family Stone, and gently tripped their way through the mud into history as local authorities struggled to provide them with food and other services over the course of a very long weekend.
Unsurprisingly, and notwithstanding previous anniversary festivals in 1994 and 1999, the organisers of the original Woodstock are celebrating the occasion with an almighty, and much slicker blowout at Watkins Glen, NY. The forthcoming Woodstock 50 will feature more than 60 of “the biggest names and emerging talent in rock, hip hop, pop and country” like the Killers, Dead & Company, Jay Z, Miley Cyrus, Chance The Rapper, Imagine Dragons, The Black Keys and the Raconteurs. But scattered among the bill are those who performed at the original festival.
Carlos Santana is one. The guitarist was just 19 and largely unknown outside his native San Fransisco when he led his band onstage at the original Woodstock. Another is John Fogerty, who performed there with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Others include Hot Tuna, a side project of original Woodstock headliners Jefferson Airplane, blues boogiemeisters Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, folkies Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, and John Sebastian.
And there is David Crosby, the former Byrds member who, upon taking the stage 50 years ago with Graham Nash, formerly of the Hollies, and ex-Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills, famously declared that this was only the second time Crosby, Stills & Nash had performed in public and they were scared “shitless”. Such jitters were evident in the 1970 Woodstock documentary in their opening number, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, but the group went down a storm – especially after bringing out on to the stage a fourth member, Neil Young.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young celebrate their own half-century this year and two books to mark that anniversary, Peter Doggett’s CSNY: Crosy, Stills, Nash & Young (Atria Books) and David Browne’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup (De Capo Press), will no doubt draw attention to the group’s first, terrific releases. 
Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic Records), released at the end of May 1969, was an instant smash and immortalised the group’s extraordinary close, high harmonies. It’s true the hippy hokum has dated a bit, but the album’s best material – in particular Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and the potent commentary on Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Pre-Road Downs – remains timeless and musically assured. It is a definitive record of its era, and a must-have for any serious collection.
Young was brought on board for 1970’s DéjàVu (Atlantic), one of the most keenly anticipated albums in rock. Amazingly, it lived up to expectations and was another chart success, but cracks were apparent: only two of the album’s tracks, opener Carry On and a rocking version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, could be considered “group” efforts. Other highlights, Almost Cut My Hair, 4+20, Teach Your Children and Helpless, were largely “solo” projects by, respectively, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
They would all go on to release great solo albums, Young especially. But after DéjàVu, the CSN&Y story is one of diminishing returns, unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities. The 1971 live album, 4 Way Street (Atlantic), was a great concert document, but again it was another showcase of four separate individuals who sometimes worked together. Perhaps the best summation of this early purple period is the 1974 compilation, So Far (Atlantic). Nearly all of it is drawn from the first two albums, the only exceptions being the single Ohio, Young’s visceral response to the killing of anti-war protesters at Kent State University in May 1970 by Ohio’s national guard, and its B-side, Find the Cost of Freedom.
As for the albums that documented the Woodstock festival, 1970’s triple LP set Music from the Original Soundtrack and More: Woodstock and 1971’s double Woodstock Two (both Cotillon Records), the latter is probably the better. They’re by no means great live recordings, however. Sound quality is poor, and playing is often messy. The film remains the better document of the event.
He turns out a bit like the traditional urban cowboy, what with the fringed shirts, boots and Stetson, but newcomer Orville Peck is one heck of an unlikely bro-country act. On paper, this audacious and smart Canadian singer-songwriter does seem the real deal. His voice is big and outdoorsy, the guitars have all the twang and reverb of vintage country & western, and his melodies range from the sweetly sad to the cheerfully defiant – all of which has been brought together in a wonderfully atmospheric and spacious dynamic on his debut album, Pony (Sub-Pop).
But that fringed mask Peck wears as he stares out from the album’s cover suggests that all is not what it seems. With that slight goth and shoegaze warp to the guitars, and lyrics about hanging with gay rodeo riders and rough men calling him pretty and getting high with street hustlers, it becomes clear that Peck is on a mission to subvert the classic tropes of Americana. What’s more, Pony is going to take some beating: gender politics aside, the record is a powerfully satisfying ride, one of the most fascinating debuts from an alt-country artist in a long time.
As a singer, Peck sounds like a mixture of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison – and Morrissey. Throw in the startling imagery of the videos for two tracks off the album, Dead of Night and Turn to Hate, and it seems that it’s a hybrid perhaps best at home in the subterranean noir of a David Lynch movie. As loudersound.com put it, “[Peck] wilfully shares very little about his identity, meaning that details about his background are hard to come by – but if you imagine Johnny Cash plonked into an episode of Twin Peaks, singing songs about queer romance, you’re just about there.”
So, no personal details, which is perhaps fitting for a masked man of mystery. But Peck did reveal to loudersound the records that influenced his art, and these are worth sharing: At Folsom Prison, by Johnny Cash (Sony); Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane (RCA); Los Angeles, X (Slash); Jolene, Dolly Parton (RCA); Horses, Patti Smith (Arista); Mama Tried, Merle Haggard (Capitol): Milo Goes to College, the Descendents (New Alliance); Harvest, Neil Young (Reprise); Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth (Goofin Records); and Mystery Girl, Roy Orbison (Sony). All highly recommended albums, and all recently reissued on vinyl.
Mention of David Lynch calls to mind Chris Isaak, another great atmospheric singer who for a while revelled in a reverb-drenched limelight and that hushed, late-night space somewhere between Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. Lynch did wonderful things for Isaak’s career by including an instrumental version of his song, Wicked Game, in Wild at Heart, his warped 1990 treatise on the Wizard of Oz. The song’s video, a moody monochromatic affair with Isaak and supermodel Helena Christensen cavorting on a beach, also helped shift units and turn the song into a radio hit.
Isaak’s best records were his early ones. His debut, 1985’s Silvertone (Warner Bros), established a winning template of songs of smoky, wounded romance and dark menace with a production that aimed for the early rock & roll twang of the Sun Studios recordings by way of a 1980s gloss – or what one critic has labelled “corporate rock disease”. The follow-up, 1986’s Chris Isaak (Warner Bros), was more of the same, and perhaps a less essential set. Cream of the crop was 1989’s Heart Shaped World (Reprise), which enjoyed major chart success thanks to Wicked Game.
Future releases were mannered and formulaic. Isaak by now was following in Presley’s footsteps and trying to make it as a film star. Sadly, the brand lapsed into being about the moody pout and the cocked eyebrow as much as the music. For newcomers, there are two excellent compilations: 1991’s Wicked Game (Reprise), put together to cash in on the Lynch movie, and 2006’s double LP, Best of Chris Isaak (Reprise), which concentrates on late career releases.
Can dance music endure beyond the clubs and survive decades removed from their era? Well, yes, but only if it’s by someone like Grace Jones, who remains powerfully listenable in a way that disco’s other dance floor divas, Gloria Gaynor or Donna Summer, for example, do not. Jones struck gold with 1980’s Warm Leatherette (Island Records), the first of three albums recorded at the legendary Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. By teaming up with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the great production duo and the rhythm section of some of the best reggae albums ever recorded, she turned in a record that transformed her from a club act into a pop star. 
But the following year’s Nightclubbing (Island) was the killer, a phenomenal crossover record that saw Jones working with Dunbar and Shakespeare once again as she radically reinterpreted songs by Bill Withers, the Police, Iggy Pop and Marianne Faithfull. The album established Jones as a monolithic cultural presence, with one review noting, “Never before and never since has a precisely chipped block of ore been so seductive.”
1982’s Living My Life (Island), the last of the Bahamas recordings, more or less continued with the formula but was a commercial disappointment, despite the presence of excellent tracks like My Jamaican Guy and Nipple to the Bottle. After this, Jones retired from music for a number of years to pursue a film career. But it’s better to think of her as the artist who gave us the walloping, glacial Nightclubbing rather than a Bond girl. The 2014 deluxe reissue of the album features a bonus disc of remixes, B-sides and other rarities.

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