BETHEL, N.Y. — Forty years after the Woodstock concert made rock music history, thousands of music lovers, old and young, converged on the site for what was billed as a reunion for an event that defined a generation.
Only a few of the original Woodstock musicians were on hand, and the crowd, estimated at about 15,000, was a tiny fraction of the half million or so who swarmed this isolated rural area decades ago. The farm itself, then a muddy mess, now houses the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, and Saturday night’s performances took place in an open-air amphitheater with most of the attendees seated picnic style on grass-covered slope.
Several reunion gatherings took place nearby, including a few hundred people camping out at a farm about a mile away, and more old Woodstockers gathered around Hector’s Inn in Bethel, swilling beer and listening to anyone with a guitar and an amplifier.
Crowds inside and out of the amphitheater formed a colorful sea of tie-dyed T-shirts, sundresses and bandanas, with the many of the Woodstock veterans distinguished by long hair and beards gone snow white, and bellies grown large under tight tank tops.
“It’s funny seeing everybody getting old,” said Vinny Verdi, 59, a motion picture projectionist from New Jersey, who was here as a 19-year-old for the festival in 1969.
Asked what he recalled most about his trip to Woodstock as a teenager, Verdi said, “I have no memory. Just the vibe.” He added, “The music was almost secondary to the experience of just being here. It’s a part of you that you like to feel every once and a while.”
John Westbrook, 61, came to the first Woodstock festival when he happened to be home in Sparrow Bush, N.Y., on a break from the Navy in Vietnam. “I was stoned when I got here, stoned when I left and stoned for many years after,” said Westbrook, wearing a tie-dyed sleeveless T-shirt, loose-fitting tie-dyed pants and a matching headband over his graying hair. “I’m surprised there are so many of us. The old ones are slowly dying.”
This weekend’s event seemed a marked contrast to a violent 30th anniversary concert in Rome, N.Y., in 1999, when concert-goers set bonfires, torched several refrigeration trucks, bashed ATMs and caused mayhem after the performances. That upheaval raised questions about staging future anniversary festivals.
The music was opened just after 5 p.m., by Conor Oberst reprising Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar version of “The Star Spangled Banner” that became legendary after he performed it at Woodstock. Afterward, Big Brother and the Holding Company performed some of their hits made famous by Janis Joplin, with Sophia Ramos singing the lead. Big Brother did not play at the original Woodstock, although Joplin did, with a different band.
Hendrix and Joplin died in 1970.
Country Joe McDonald, acting as emcee for the performance, tried to link the 1969 anti-war mood of the crowd to today, with American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before the show, McDonald said, “I don’t think war will ever be seen the same way again, as a result of, perhaps, the Vietnam generation and the Woodstock generation.”
On stage, McDonald asked the crowd for a moment of silence while he read off the names of the nine service members from Sullivan County who were killed in Vietnam, and the five killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he sang his anti-war anthem, “Next Stop Is Vietnam.”
But most of the crowd seemed to be here for the music, not the politics. “I love the music,” said Matt Krulewicz, 38, from Scranton, Pa. “It’s cool to see the young people following the music from 40 years ago.”