So upon the announcement of a new Woodstock 1, my interior Old Rock Dude scoffed, thinking that it would, of course, be terrible. This is a reflex that I’m always a little curious to see rear its head, because it’s not something that I generally indulge in. I’m always pretty happy to see things that currently exist given their proper weight and name, and not just buried under a morass of “this is a pale shadow of that which is sacred” 2. That said, there is a very simple explanation for why this happened.
You see, Woodstock has always been largely garbage. There have been some moments that are justifiably famous, and some acts have played that have been fine 3 without being spectacular, but mostly it’s been a survey of “bands that were popular and available, and largely disconnected from each other and often inexplicable”.
The 1969 Woodstock is the most worked-over and talked about one, certainly. There were a number of bands (The Who, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, probably also The Grateful Dead but see below, etc.) that played at the height of their powers, and the aforementioned nothing-special rank and file was at least stuff that worked out well live, and translated pretty well to a giant outdoor festival. That said, there were plenty of duff acts in there, and a pretty unseemly reliance on Country Joe, which is completely inexplicable if you weren’t “there” I guess. Country Joe, man. People love that “Fish Cheer”. The world is a strange place.
The nineties Woodstocks used returning acts as a crutch, and 94 seemed especially willing to talk about the artist who played 94 who didn’t play 69 as a kind of marketing hook, so we see Dylan here, as well as sort of demographic-adjacent stuff as The Allman Brothers. The good parts of 94, then, are these kinds of legacy acts – Bob Dylan, Jimmy Cliff, Gil Scott-Heron – with occasionally-interesting acts that were good, but also had little to do with the original Woodstock milieu (Rollins Band, Cypress Hill, Metallica). It also, given that I just watched several hours of footage from the whole thing, looked like it was the most fun – more put-together than 69, and less on-fire than 99.
Woodstock 99, then, is rightfully the reason to have shut the brand down for 20 years. The median quality of the bands that perform is significantly lower – the low points are so very low, and are more numerous, and aren’t enough to counterbalance the high points, which were actually mostly hip-hop acts (Rage Against the Machine, The Roots, DMX, etc.) anyway. The artists involved are often more of a piece – there’s a lot of radio metal in there, interspersed among the scattered jam bands and pop acts – and it’s all just a dreadful slog to get through most of them.
But then, it’s often a slog to get through the mountain of these bands. That’s sort of the point. To answer the question “was Woodstock really so unquestionably amazing”, I have ranked every band that played at every Woodstock so far, to get an idea for how often it was actually something worth seeing.
Well, almost every band. There are some that are left out. In 1994, for example, WOMAD got one of the stages for a sort of mini-WOMAD. Since this is basically another festival that was arranged to be part of this festival, I didn’t include it, which is a shame, because most of it was pretty good. I also didn’t deal with the rave tent at 94 – that kind of thing is entirely dependent on the audience you’re in, rather than the act that’s pushing the buttons and doing the mixing, and it’s basically impossible to get any kind of idea about what was going on from a youtube video in my house 4. I also didn’t deal with the Emerging Artists stage, where a bunch of bands that were meant to be famous but mostly never were (with the exception of Muse, who did get famous, The Supersuckers who didn’t get famous but continue to be great, King’s X, who played the regular stage in 94, and Bijou Philips who was famous as an actress/Scientologist/notable homophobe, but who sang at Woodstock 99, which is weird), because it seemed unsporting, and also because I have no idea how to evaluate that kind of thing. Oh, and there was a “pre-concert” at Woodstock 99 at which, like, G Love and Special Sauce and George Clinton, among others, played, and I didn’t include those either.
In the interest of fairness, also, if I couldn’t find any footage or recordings of a band during their time at Woodstock, they were also not included. I mean, it’s not a scientific operation here, but if anyone knows where I can find any of them 5, that would be interesting. They’re largely obscure and/or local-to-upstate-New York white-blues-based jam bands. So. No big loss.
So, with those caveats in place, please to enjoy this completely-correct, obviously-worthwhile ranking of every act that has played every Woodstock so far, and feel free to compare them out when (if?) the performers at this next thing are announced.
Jimi Hendrix (1969) I mean, this seems fairly obvious
Bob Dylan (1994) All existing recordings of this make it seem pretty incredible, and Bob Dylan sure could be
The Roots (1999) Obviously it’s easiest to make the top of this list when you’re a great band at the top of your game
The Who (1969)
The Band (1969)
Richie Havens (1969) He famously had to go on a couple of hours before he was originally scheduled to do so, which is pretty awesome on top of how good it is in general.
Rage Against the Machine (1999)
Joe Cocker (1969)
Sly & The Family Stone (1969)
Rollins Band (1994) When the Rollins Band’s reputation is rehabilitated, I will be up here at the forefront: the second incarnation of this band, which this is, was a pretty great jazz-metal act. This is “Liar”-era material, here.
Nine Inch Nails (1994)
Metallica (1999) This is the later performance because in 1999 they were pretty firmly in crowd-pleasing hits-playing mode, which is better
Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969) They weren’t in the movie or on the album, but the setlist is amazing, and all existing recordings make it seem like this was a real corker
Guster (1999) I confess to having seen Guster in the last six months. I like Guster. They’re a good live band.
Jimmy Cliff’s All-Star Reggae Revue (1994) Did you guys know that Shabba Ranks was present at a Woodstock? The nineties were weird.
Janis Joplin (1969)
Metallica (1994) Metallica is always Metallica, but at this point they were gearing up for Load, and thus at their least crowd-pleasing, which doesn’t really work for a Woodstock
Ravi Shankar (1969)
Cypress Hill (1994) Bonus points for overcoming DJ Mugg’s malfunctioning microphone.
The Band (featuring a bunch of dudes from Hot Tuna and the Grateful Dead) (1994) Even without Robbie Robertson they were still pretty much The Band, and as far as the thin gruel of this stuff goes, they were pretty good
Jefferson Airplane (1969)
The Cranberries (1994)
Wyclef Jean (1999) Who knows how much of his mind he’d already lost at this point. I’d still watch him play above a lot of these other folks
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1969) Ranked so highly for the idea of the novelty of seeing the act, and also because some of this performance is in the movie and on the album, but Neil Young isn’t.
Neville Brothers (1994)
Everlast (1999) I like Everlast. Fight me.
Green Day (1994)
Red Hot Chili Peppers (1999) This has the advantage because at least John Frusciante is their guitar player in 1999
Mike Ness (1999) He played the covers you’d have wanted him to, and “Ball and Chain”. Hard to get mad at that.
Bush (1999) I’m not a Bush fan, exactly, but I think they were better than the shake they got.
Arrested Development (1994)
Insane Clown Posse (1999) Clown Na Na
Rusted Root (1999)
Joe Cocker (1994) The key document here is “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which in 1969 was a barn-burning Beatles cover, and in 1994 had been the theme song to The Wonder Years and was a very different thing when he performed it.
Salt n Pepa (1994) More of these acts need elaborate choreography, it really helps in making the thing visually interesting
Youssou N’Dour (1994) He fared better than Peter Gabriel, certainly
Elvis Costello (1999)
The Violent Femmes (1994)
Red Hot Chili Peppers (1994) Their guitar player was Dave Navarro here, which is less interesting, although I wonder if he and Perry Farrell saw each other backstage. I wonder if they were still bros.
Zucchero (1994) NB: I am not entirely sure ths wasn’t WOMAD-related, but as far as the general worldbeat-jam-blues undercurrent that runs through these things goes, this is a pretty good example. I was pleasantly surprised, having no previous relationship with this band’s music.
Johnny Winter (1969) As far as the interminable rank and file of white blues jammers go, this is more or less the top of the pile
Sisters of Glory (1994) This is a bunch of gospel superstars. It sounds good, it’s a clever wag of a thing to do on Sunday morning, and Mavis Staples is pretty much the best, so it’s got its good points, certainly
Gil Scott-Heron (1994)
Grateful Dead (1969) This is basically impossible for me to evaluate. I know nothing about how to even go about appreciating this kind of thing. I like plenty of improvised music, I like plenty of non-dynamic music, I like plenty of abstract music. The Grateful Dead manage not to trigger my interest at all in any of those things. I understand that they’re an institution, and that people love them, and spend whole lifetimes obsessed with them, and I’m willing to admit to being wrong – or at least unable to be right – about them as a result. I just don’t hear any of it. I’ve tried an awful lot, including for this very writeup and I’m just not here for any of it. So they’re here, kind of in the middle, because that’s about where I can imagine them being. But they’re actually uncategorizable.
Counting Crows (1999)
Blues Traveler (1994)
Blood, Sweat and Tears (1969)
The Tragically Hip (1999)
Porno for Pyros (1994) This is really elevated several steps above where it would be otherwise by dint of there being a lecture about UFOs and a clown that did interpretive dance.
Brian Setzer Orchestra (1999) Swing Na Na
George Clinton & The P-Funk All Stars (1994) This, or maybe Ravi Shankar, is sort of the “reliable workhorse” line. George Clinton was pretty much done doing what he was doing in 1994, but he was still George Clinton, and this still sounds fine, such as it is.
Joan Baez (1969)
Ice Cube (1999) By 1999 Ice Cube had already lost most of what made him Ice Cube, but he was still a good rapper and still put up a good setlist, so he earns some extra points
Chemical Brothers (1999) I’ve seen their movie, so I sort of get the idea, but I can’t imagine what this sounded like from that fucking field.
Crosby, Stills & Nash (1994)
Kid Rock (1999)
Collective Soul (1994)
James Brown (1999) James Brown in 1999 is a depressing prospect.
Swami Satchidananda (1969) Even I am not here to hate on a benediction, but it’s still just a benediction
Dave Matthews Band (1999)
Blind Melon (1994) I mean, this sucked, but it sucked historically and with much verve. It sucked pretty genuinely, is what I’m saying here. Honorably. With many drugs and much addlepatedness.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1969) The second best harmonica-driven band in the history of Woodstock, now proven with science!
Melissa Etheridge (1994)
Peter Gabriel (1994) I mean, I’ve definitely seen Peter Gabriel do cool shit, but this was not that.
Everclear (1999) True story – I haven’t thought about Everclear in so long that when I saw them on the list of performers, I forgot about them entirely and briefly thought it was weird that Everlast had performed twice. All told the world would have been better off had Everlast performed twice.
Collective Soul (1999)
Paul Rogers (1994) Like Joe Cocker, Paul Rogers aged pretty well as far as “doing that thing” goes, so I guess there’s that.
Alanis Morissette (1999)
Canned Heat (1969)
Sheryl Crow (1999) The difference between this performance and the 1994 performance is that by 1999, she had been a giant touring concern for five more years, and thus was in better control of it.
Sheryl Crow (1994)
Los Lobos (1999) No but seriously – Los Lobos? In 1999? The fuck?
Korn (1999) Woodstock 99 was shot through with tonnes of nu-metal, and Korn did not actually weather being rock stars very well.
Quill (1969) Although bonus points for throwing maracas and shit into the audience. It was definitely better than their music, and it meant they had fewer instruments in their possession with which to play said music
Allman Brothers (1994)
3 And a Half Hours of Pouring Rain (1969) Yep. Every band below this line failed to improve upon the weather. Ah, Woodstock!
Spitifre (1999) This is a weird spoken-word thing assembled or produced or curated or whatever by Zach de la Rocha. It’s not better than rain, but it’s, y’know, extremely nineties so it’s up this far.
Melanie Safka (1969) Joni MItchell Na Na.
Sha Na Na (1969) On the one hand, I want to praise any act that was there to be entertaining first and foremost – just look at how high Insane Clown Posse is, for example – on the other hand, Sha Na Na were awful. Just awful.
Ten Years After (1969)
Jamiroquai (1999) I don’t have another place to insert this story, and the chance may never come again so: the bartender at the brewery closest to my house used to work at the grocery store that Jay Kay from Jamiroquai shopped at, and assures me that he always wore the hats. I’m charmed and delighted by this information.
Tim Hardin (1969)
John Sebastian (1969) It’s weird to think that by 1969 John Sebastian was already working on his fallback career – The Lovin’ Spoonful had already broken up. Anyway, he’s boring.
Santana (1994) I’m not a huge fan of Santana under any real circumstances – Woodstock being one of the things I genuinely like about his body of work – but in 1994 I just am not feeling it.
John Sebastian (1994) Still boring, now with even more oldness
Our Lady Peace (1999) True story: I really liked Our Lady Peace in 1999. Follow-up true story: I don’t remember why.
Bruce Hornsby (1999)
Arlo Guthrie (1969)
Godsmack (1999) Their guitar player wore a pretty cool Johnny the Homicidal Maniac t-shirt though
Sweetwater (1969) Remember when VH1 made that movie with Felicity’s friend slash the Pink Ranger and it was about this band? That movie sucked, and this band sucked, and also they got pulled over on the way to Woodstock, which is why Richie Havens had to perform on such short notice.
Sevendust (1999) This is a band that genuinely lives up to their name. By which I mean: they are terrible and their name is terrible.
King’s X (1994) Their set features one of the world’s worst Jimi Hendrix covers!
The Keef Hartley Band (1969)
G Love and Special Sauce (1999)
Limp Bizkit (1999)
Bret Sommer (1969) This dude originated the Treat Williams role in Hair (that’s his hair on the original playbill, in fact), and also he sucked real bad.
Creed (1999) Robbie Krieger joined them for a cover of “Roadhouse Blues”. That sentence is more interesting than anything they did on stage. It is also not that interesting.
The Incredible String Band (1969)
Mickey Hart and Planet Drum (1994) He plays what very much appear to be electronic steel drum pads. Like, drum pads that make steel drum noises when he hits them. They are tremendously dumb.
Country Joe and the Fish (1969) Country Joe MacDonald spent an awful lot of time onstage at the first two Woodstocks. None of that time was well-spent.
Del Amitri (1994)
Candlebox (1994) They at least called out that Madonna made them famous when they started their set. That was pretty funny.
The Umbilical Brothers (1999) Not just comedy at Woodstock, but awful sound-effect novelty comedy at Woodstock.
Jackyl (1994) AC/DC Na Na
The Offspring (1999)
The Spin Doctors (1994) Have they ever not been the worst band at any given show they’ve ever played?
Country Joe MacDonald (1969) Country Joe without all those pesky fish
Country Joe MacDonald (1994) Country Joe without all those pesky fish 25 years later.
Country Joe MacDonald (1994) Country Joe without all those pesky fish 25 years later for a second time in one weekend.
- see last week ↩
- sort of the defining feature of Old Rock Dudeism – the notion that nothing could possibly be as good as it was when the Old Rock Dude was a Young Rock Dude, rather than simply a shifting of taste on the part of the ORD. ↩
- the rank and file of bands that are neither great nor terrible are the ones that seem to be most in Michael Lang’s wheelhouse – blues-oriented and/or jam-oriented bands that are tremendously not something that I care about, with rare edge-case exceptions. ↩
- the Chemical Brothers played the main stage in 99, and so are ranked, but it doesn’t really translate through the “from my house on youtube thing”, as you can see below. ↩
- the complete list of band so disqualified is: 3 (you try figuring out how to find material from any given specific show by a band that’s just called “3”), Futu Futu (whose studio recordings sound like they’re great live), The Goats, Huffamoose (each of the latter two of which had an actual hit), Lunchmeat, Orleans (who played twice and are local to the upstate New York area), the Paul Luke Band, Peacebomb (when you google Peacebomb, you get links to the aforementioned 3, and also to Joe Stole), Rekk (if they’re the German band called that, then they’re pretty terrible actually), Roguish Armament, Nenad Bach (who’s a Croatian sideman with five bajillion credits), Erice Gales (another sideman, this time a whiz-kid guitar player), which are all from 1994, and Abba Rage, who played at Woodstock 99. ↩