Graham: Woodstock returns to crowded concert field

What role does Woodstock play when there's a Woodstock every weekend?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Woodstock defined a generation. More than once, even. 

Now it's just another festival. 

Bob Weir of Dead & Company, one of many acts booked for this summer's Woodstock 50.

The lineup for Woodstock's 50th anniversary festival was announced this week. With headliners such as the Killers, Jay-Z, Imagine Dragons, Halsey and Chance the Rapper, it could be any other music festival on any other weekend this summer. 

In fact, in the weekends surrounding Woodstock 50, there's Lollapalooza in Chicago, Psycho Las Vegas, Bellweather Music Festival in Renaissance Park, Ohio, Outside Lands in San Francisco, Osheaga Festival in Quebec, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and Mo Pop here in Detroit. And that's to say nothing of Coachella, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Electric Forest, Summerfest, Roots Picnic, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Rocklahoma, Forecastle, Movement, Shaky Knees or Hangout Festival, the other major music festivals that dot the U.S. concertgoing landscape. 

It's arguable that none of these festivals would have happened without the original Woodstock, held on a farm in upstate New York in August 1969. (And Woodstock would have never happened had it not been for the Monterey Pop Festival two summers earlier, but we digress.)

Now, 50 years removed from Woodstock's three-day celebration of peace and music, music festivals have over-saturated the concert market to the point where festival lineups consistently blur together in one big mishmash of names, each less distinguishable from the last.

Woodstock, however, made its mark.  

An estimated 400,000 concertgoers, approximately 77 of them wearing shirts, turned up for a summer love fest soundtracked by Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Band, the Who, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe McDonald and many others. It was a historic gathering, a snapshot of a moment in time, and the mud, peace signs and free love would come to define an era.

The good vibes from Woodstock didn't last long; four months later, Altamont went bad, and it would be years before another music festival put its stamp on a generation. 

Twenty five years after the original Woodstock, Woodstock '94 took the Woodstock name and revived it for the '90s alt-rock set. A handful of acts from the original festival performed, including Santana, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Country Joe McDonald, but it was mostly about the big-name headliners, including Aerosmith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica. Green Day got in a mud fight with the audience during a set that solidified the punk rockers' rising star, and Nine Inch Nails took the stage caked in mud and proceeded to destroy everything within reach. The concert aired on Pay-Per-View and Pepsi was a major sponsor so yeah, it wasn't as pure as the original event. But reaction was mostly positive.   

That would change five years later with the disastrous Woodstock '99 festival, which came to define an era in a negative sense. The nu-metal dominated lineup included angst rockers Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine, and the weekend ended with fires breaking out in the audience and numerous reports of sexual assault. Woodstock had come along way since the peace and love of the original festival, just as America had. Peace and love gave way to fires and fights. 

Woodstock '99 was so poorly received that it nearly derailed festival business in America for good. Two months hence, a promoter tried throwing a big concert in the southern California desert with a bunch of big name acts, and the festival lost so much money it nearly went bankrupt. Its name was Coachella. 

Coachella was revived in 2001, and within a few years it became the picturesque party it is today. And the success of Coachella led to the proliferation of music fests across the board, where dozens of festivals now fill the music calendar, all sharing acts with each other. There are essentially multiple Woodstocks every weekend now. So what is the value of actual Woodstock? 

Judging by the Woodstock 50 lineup, not much. Sure, there are a few acts from the original lineup in tact — Dead & Company, Santana and John Fogerty and yes, Country Joe McDonald among them — but elsewhere, there's not much to distinguish Woodstock 50 from a plethora of other music fests.

Perhaps its Woodstock's legacy that it fostered a such a strong culture of music and community that there no longer needs to be a Woodstock. Its spirit has outlived the name.