Saturday, February 17 , 2018, 9:25 pm | Fair 47º


Paul Mann: Woodstock Tribute Festival a Blast From the Past

West Fest proves simply groovy as original legends and throngs of fans converge on Golden Gate Park

I arrived shortly after sunrise at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on a spectacularly fall Sunday. Brilliant sunlight shone down on the lush green park, with crystal clear air — the result of recent passing storms — adding to the vibrancy of myriad colors in the park. The early arrival allowed me to traverse the massive area of West Fest, the 40th anniversary tribute of 1969’s Woodstock.

I was fortunate to be there before the arrival of throngs of music fans, with estimates of more than 100,000 people passing through the park over the nine hours of the event. Ground zero was backstage at the main West Stage. There, volunteers were busy preparing a communal meal, booze and coffee stands, and all manner of schwag for the army of musicians who would congregate and play throughout the day. Most appeared for little more compensation than the backstage perks and a chance to be part of the historic footnote, and to commensurate with fellow musicians they may not have seen in decades.

Organized and bankrolled mostly by iconic San Francisco musician and producer Boots Hughston, the massive free festival attracted a diverse crowd, split evenly between aging rock fans who remember the music and teen to 20-something fans with the intellectual capacity to appreciate the rich musical talent of the aging performers. The large turnout of young fans was particularly inspiring, fans who were less concerned with the epaulets of a singer’s jacket or the latest gossip magazine story of a guitar player than the sheer musical brilliance of the performers.

A few hundred fans were already settling onto the massive green lawn of the speedway area to catch every minute of the marathon event. Nearly a mile away sat the East Stage. Although a smaller stage, it was in the hub of commerce, surrounded by hundreds of exotic food booths, arts and crafts, and social awareness booths. Off yet another fork of the immense event sat hippy-era painted buses, a tipi village, a performing artists tent and another stage of mostly female artists, sponsored by the National Organization for Women.

Right on schedule, at 9 a.m., bagpipers traversed the fields heralding the opening of the event. Then a series of spiritual leaders, anchored by members of the American Indian Movement prominent in the 1960s Wounded Knee uprising, sang and prayed traditional blessings.

From then on, a near impossible schedule ran almost like clockwork. Most of the more than 70 legendary bands played a 15-minute set, followed by a five-minute speech from some of the important historical human-rights figures of the 1960s. A few of the most popular acts were given 30-minute sets, allowing for jams with guest stars. The result was near-nonstop music, with bands playing smoking jams and hit after hit of some of the most famous songs of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Narada Michael Walden, a super session drummer who played in early super groups in the ‘60s, including The Mahavishnu Orchestra, opened and closed the show, with two Jimi Hendrix jams. The first was an attempt to break the world record of 3,000 guitars all playing Purple Haze. Although the attempt fell far short, the sight of several hundred fans — from children to grandparents — playing all manner of acoustic and electric guitar in the crowd was impressive and inspiring.

On stage, Walden led the jam with guitarists Leon and Ricky Hendrix (brother and cousin of Jimi Hendrix), Pete Sears and Vince Black. The latter was the go-to guitar player to fill spots in groups such as Sly & the Family Stone Band.

If there were any universal connections to the music, it would have to be the ‘60s metal rock guitar, honed over the years into more of a blues and jazz rock style, that dozens of the best guitarists of the era blazed throughout the long, sunny day. They included Jerry Miller of Moby Grape, Barry Melton of Country Joe and The Fish, Harvey Mandel of Quicksliver, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Starship, Terry Haggerty of The Sons of Champlin, David Denny of the Steve Miller Band, Greg Douglas, P.F. Sloan, Peter Kaukononen and Jeff Jolly, just to name a few of the ripsters.

Another theme displayed throughout the day were the funky black sounds of the early 1960s music that inspired so many of today’s musicians. Surviving members of Sly & The Family Stone teamed up with fantastic new young musicians to blaze through some of their hits. Soul and gospel legend Edwin Hawkins led a gospel rock group through a fascinating funky set. Lester Chambers, the surviving brother of The Chambers Brothers, led a group through his funk rock hits.

Then there were a few bands who set their own pace, such as The Byrds’ John York, playing acoustic hits. On the far stage, P.F. Sloan played his ‘60s iconic classics “Secret Agent Man” and “Eve of Destruction,” with a smoking young guitar player whose name escaped me. In fact, there were so many great supporting musicians who went unnamed that it was hard to keep up.

Mitchell Holman (original bass player for It’s a Beautiful Day), played a new-age jazz set with a group of accomplished musicians. Ironically, at nearly the same time, David La Flamme, the original violin player of It’s a Beautiful Day, led his new version of the band through a medley of their hits on the Main Stage.

It was impossible to catch all of the bands playing as the stages were spaced widely apart and the set changes came so quickly, but it just added to the magic as most music fans just wandered about casually enjoying random sets. People lounged on blankets, ate lots of food, sang, danced and shopped at the dozens of boutique booths. The casual, relaxed atmosphere combined with the beautiful weather resulted in a near-perfect setting for the impressive presentation of musical genius.

The festival may well turn out to be the swan song for many of America’s most famous rock performers from the dawning of the age of modern rock.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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