Diving into the Woodstock 50 lineup

Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969 (photo by James M. Shelley)

Everyone knew that the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock concert would fall in 2019, that it would be a big deal with multiple players involved and that it would probably come with its share of controversy, conflict, dissension and wrestling over disputed legacies. Par for the course, I suppose, for a concert that didn’t really happen anywhere near the Town of Woodstock.

Mid-Hudson locals, of course, were completely unsurprised to learn that the still-vital Michael Lang – the highest-profile of the original concert’s founders and the accidental star of the successful motion picture, as notable for his preternatural composure amidst the chaos as for his boyish good looks – was neck-deep in all of it. Beyond that, much remained shrouded in confusion: two competing concerts on the same weekend? One designed by the original founder and the other held at the original site? Who owns what? Would it feature the legendary bands and artists of the ’60s, like the original concert, or would it feature the freshest, biggest pop and rock acts of the present, like the original concert? What does Woodstock even mean, 50 years later, to a generation that has its own zeitgeist-defining festivals like, well, Fyre?


The dust has settled and the logistics, at least, are clear. There will be only one proper anniversary festival: Lang’s Woodstock 50, which will take place not at the venue and museum that now stand on Yasgur’s Farm, but at Watkins Glen, the location of several other less-famous but no-less-populous ’60s bacchanalia. After contemplating (and even announcing) a mega-concert on the very same weekend, the Bethel Center for the Arts has now elected to pass on a monolithic festival, hosting Ringo Starr instead on August 16 and Santana and the Doobie Brothers on August 17, and to distribute its observance of 50 throughout its 2019 programming: a rich run of events, including many celebrations and interrogations of Woodstock that have little to do with music.

That left only the small matter of the lineup – a lineup that would be examined in every light and from every angle, read like a generational manifesto, analyzed tooth-and-nail by music fans, debated fiercely over whether it honors or disgraces the original. And which would be better: honor or disgrace? Now that the preliminary lineup has been released, Michael Lang’s words about Woodstock 50’s relationship to the original resonate more powerfully and provide some conceptual clarity to those who read it carefully. “Woodstock 1969 was a reaction by the youth of its time and the conditions we faced,” Lang said. “We proved that it is possible to live together in harmony and with compassion…with only our best selves represented. Woodstock gave people around the world hope, which is why I think it remains relevant today.”

With the hot words in that passage – “of its time…conditions we faced…relevant today” – Lang was signaling the old hippies that, while there would certainly be ample provision for nostalgia, guitars and legacy maintenance, Woodstock 50 would be more about replicating the broad cultural function of the original concert than the narrow facts of it. Meanwhile, his words contained a certain urgent cajoling directed to youth: Take the political and cultural agency of music seriously, like we did. Put down your phones and make something happen.

Why would anyone ever doubt that Woodstock 50 would feature pop and rap headliners as well as bands in the earthy tradition of the original? We already have Mountain Jam for a festival in the direct musical legacy of Woodstock. The cultural legacy, on the other hand, dictates that some of the most resonant big-stage artists of the day need to be there, or it can’t be Woodstock.

Whether the curation nails that big target is a matter of opinion. I find the roster to be perfectly acceptable at the very worst. But of this lineup, it can be said: You will see in it what you want to see in it.

Day One is headlined by one of the last stadium guitar-rock bands in the Killers and by one of the first in Santana. Over the last few years Miley Cyrus (why do I always call her Miley Ray Cyrus?) has distinguished herself as f*&*ing weird enough to belong here, by virtue of her elegy for a dead goldfish if for nothing else. Down the lineup lies a rather wonderful integrated mess of old and new: John Fogerty, Melanie, Robert Plant and John Sebastian hanging in the green tent with Run the Jewels, Akon and Princess Nokia.

Day Two presents the sharpest headliner dichotomy of the weekend, with Dead & Company (perhaps relishing a chance to improve upon their lackluster ’69 set) edging out Chance the Rapper for top billing. You get the idea: This is not an EDMfestival and this is not a bluegrass festival. David Crosby was a poignant add, as Woodstock ’69 was the second-ever performance by CSNY, and it was a beauty. I wish they all still talked.

Day Three features what I imagine to be the most polarizing headliners in Jay-Z and Imagine Dragons. On the next tier down, we note the exquisite symmetry of two of the most incandescent female talents on the current scene, who come at it from opposite directions: Brandi Carlile and Janelle Monáe. That is killer stuff. Day Three also wins by virtue of the inclusion of the Zombies, revitalized in the 21st century and finally enjoying the years of cultic devotion and obsession that accrued well after their retirement in 1968. The Zombies are in some ways emblematic of the paradoxes of this lineup: It is reverent and it is revisionist.

Come to your own conclusions here: www.woodstock.com.