This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the infamous Woodstock Music & Art Fair that was held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm near White Lake in Bethel, New York, between August 15 – 18, 1969.
The event was captured in an Academy Award-winning 1970 film and accompanying soundtrack album, and the Woodstock-penned theme song by Joni Mitchell went on to become an anthem for an entire generation.
Considered the penultimate historical benchmark in the Counterculture/Hippie movement of the 1960s, the festival drew over 400,000 people to the 600-acre site to listen to some of the major music stars of the day, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Sly & The Family Stone, Joe Cocker, Santana, and a newly formed band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, making its public debut.
A 50th Anniversary Woodstock Festival planned for August 16-18 appears to have run into some problems with the pullout of some major investors in April 2019 – although Michael Lang, one of the producers and organizers of the original event, says the festival is still a go.
No need to worry!
Music lovers in Southern Ontario can relive, or enjoy for the first time, The Woodstock Experience – thanks to a stellar ensemble of well-known and highly regarded musicians who have come together under the guidance of producer Dave Harland of ss7 muzik productions, and musical director Chuckee Zehr, to recreate portions of the original concert in a 2-hour touring show.
I first learned of the production from Harland and Zehr while sipping drinks at a local bar last fall. They revealed that they were going to be putting together a band of multi-instrumentalists to play a tribute to the Woodstock Festival, similar in nature to the wildly popular Inspired by Janis featuring Chuckee Zehr show making the rounds at that time. Just listening to their ideas and plans convinced me that they had a winning concept on their hands.
Friday night’s spirited Sold Out performance at London’s historic Aeolian Hall was proof positive of my hunch.
Let’s begin with the 6-piece multi-instrumentalist Woodstock Experience band. Fronting the show is Cheryl Lescom on vocals and percussion, behind the drums is Grant Heywood on the kit, guitar, congas and vocals, while Londoner Rick Taylor provides some nasty licks on guitar, congas, harmonica and vocals, joined by second guitarist and vocalist Steve Toman and bassist Marc Shickluna. Holding it all together is Musical Director, Chuckee Zehr on keyboards and vocals.
All the band members either play together in other regional bands, either together or alone, or as solo artists. All are seasoned veterans of the music scene and bring with them a wealth of experience and musical knowledge.
“Our goal was to gather together the best multi-instrumental musicians we could find, put them in a practice room together with the Woodstock soundtrack and see what happened,” says producer Dave Harland. “We’re very pleased with the end result.”
Tight, professional, joyful and just damn good are the best adjectives to describe the six musicians’ performance on the Aeolian stage on Friday night. There were no stars, just a true ensemble of talented performers working towards a common goal – to recreate The Woodstock Experience for the Sold Out appreciative crowd, many of whom had chosen to dress up in period hippie garb like tie-dyed shirts, bell bottoms, beads and floppy hats.
The concert followed the original festival’s chronological order, or at least that of the movie, beginning with opener Richie Havens’ Freedom featuring Heywood and Taylor on guitar and congas, followed by Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles.
Interspersing the songs were “announcements” from the stage made by Harland, to recreate those made by the original event’s master of ceremonies, Chip Monck, about bad acid, food availability, babies being born and asking people to get off the speaker columns.
All the major original performances were covered during the two-part show including Canned Heat’s Goin’ to The Country, The Who’s My Generation and See Me/Listening to You, Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and Somebody to Love (sung deliciously by Lescom), Joe Cocker’s rousing rendition of With A Little Help From My Friends and Feelin’ Alright, Santana’s Evil Ways and percussion heavy Soul Sacrifice featuring Heywood on the drums, a searing cover of Ten Years After’s Goin’ Home covered marvelously by guitarists Taylor and Toman, CCR’s Born on The Bayou and Suzie Q, Sha Na Na’s throw-back At The Hop, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Wooden Ships.
The band paid special tribute to Canadian-based The Band with a spirited performance of The Weight.
To be sure, one of the highlights of the evening was the tributes to late 1960s superstars, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Lescom and Zehr traded lead and backing vocals on crowd pleasing renditions of Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) and Joplin’s anthem, Piece of My Heart.
Guitarist Steve Tolman channeled Jimi Hendrix with searing covers of his infamous Star Spangled Banner with its screeching planes and bombs and the late guitarist’s signature tune Voodoo Child.
The evening ended with rousing covers of Sly & The Family Stone’s funky classics Dance To The Music and I Wanna Take You Higher, bringing the audience to its feet and prompting many to dance in front of the stage while joining in on the chorus Higher.
Returning to the stage after a prolonged standing ovation, the musicians performed the expected Woodstock anthem, penned by Joni Mitchell in a New York hotel room while watching television reports about the event.
And then it was over – with smiling audience members waiting to congratulate band members in the Aeolian merchandice room.
If you missed the Aeolian show, you will have plenty of opportunities to see The Woodstock Experience at these venues:
Friday, May 31 – Stratford Revival House
Friday, June 14 – Kitchener Registry Theatre
Friday, August 9 – Ajax St. Francis Centre
Saturday, August 17 – Bayfield Fair.
Rick Young is a London freelance writer and the former Publisher/Editor of The Beat Magazine (2009-2014).