Opinion: If Woodstock Doesn’t Happen In Upstate New York, Is It Really Still Woodstock? (Updated)

When I was a card-carrying member of the Alternative Nation in the mid-to-late 1990s—buying my skateboard supplies at Jah Skate & Reggae Shop on Caroline Street and picking up my Figgs CDs at Probe on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs—I was bummed when Woodstock ’94 rolled through Saugerties, NY, and I was unable to attend. The lineup included everything in my Discman and on 102.7 WEQX at the time: Blues Traveler, Collective Soul, Candlebox, Blind Melon, The Cranberries, Primus, Spin Doctors, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day. I remember hearing about all the rain and mud and mayhem, and thinking, well, I’m glad I didn’t go.

Five years later, the summer of my freshman year in college, a second Woodstock revival was staged in Rome, NY, and once again, I didn’t attend. (I must’ve been gearing up to ship off to Connecticut College.) That was a weird year, musically; it was the end of the decade, so you had some stragglers who still had that alt-rock sound, while you also had a hefty portion of teeny pop (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera) and super aggressive, I-hate-my-parents nu metal (Korn, Limp Bizkit). It was that aggro side of music that made the biggest splash at Woodstock ’99: The aforementioned Korn and Limp Bizkit performed there, as well as Insane Clown Posse, Rage Against the Machine, Sevendust and Godsmack. The moshers ate it up. This time around, instead of rain and mud, festival-goers got to deal with convection oven heat and water shortages. That, and ultraviolence, à la Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange. The festival ended in fire, looting, violence and multiple sexual assaults. Once again, I was glad I didn’t attend.

One would’ve suspected that following the pair of Woodstock debacles of the ’90s, festival organizers would be a little more careful about the choice of venue or format for the festival. The aborted Fyre Festival in 2017 should’ve driven home the point: Poorly organized music festivals are a recipe for disaster. Especially, when everybody’s tweeting about it in real time.

So when I read that Michael Lang, the co-creator of 1969’s Woodstock Music and Art Fair was planning to stage a 50th anniversary of the festival the weekend of August 16-18, 2019, in Upstate New York again, I was skeptical from the outset. Was he really thinking this one through? Didn’t he remember that his original affair had funding and weather problems? Then the lineup was announced, and I got a little less skeptical. “Wow,” I thought to myself. “If Jay-Z, Dead & Company, The Killers and John Fogerty have all bought into this thing, I might as well, too.” When it was announced that the festival would take place at Watkins Glen Speedway, my wife and I immediately reserved an Airbnb nearby, hoping that tickets would be reasonably priced. But I have to admit that my skeptical-o-meter went off the charts when I heard about the venue choice. For one, the previous August, a massive Phish concert had been cancelled there at the last minute due, in part, to drinking water issues. Watkins Glen had also been the site of a music festival in 1973 that had somehow trumped the OG Woodstock in size, with some 600,000 people showing up to hear The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band and The Band. (Although it wasn’t a violent mess like Woodstock ’99, one man did die skydiving into the festival.)

Then, on April 29, it was revealed that Woodstock 50 had been cancelled. There had been all sorts of rumors swirling in the media and on social media about the festival’s funding—and no one had been able to buy a single ticket to the event yet, so it clearly wasn’t bringing any money in. That was when it all began to unravel. Sure, the Woodstock 50 organizers launched court cases and allegations and ill will against their original financial backer, but nothing ever got the festival off the ground. Watkins Glen didn’t end up giving Woodstock 50 a permit to stage the festival there, and when Woodstock 50’s organizers tried to relocate to Vernon Downs, the town of Vernon, NY, denied their permit not once but twice.

Fast-forward to last week when it was announced that Woodstock 50 had potentially secured a brand-new, permanent venue for its festival: Merriweather Post Pavilion…in Maryland. And that it would be a free concert. The day before, Billboard reported that none of the artists on the original bill would be contractually forced to play at the festival  (Fogerty and Jay-Z had already backed out). Just today, July 30, it was announced that original Woodstock ’69 performers Country Joe McDonald and John Sebastian, who recently played Caffè Lena, had also pulled out. Add Dead & Co. to that list, too. And The Raconteurs. More will certainly follow. Just you wait for it.

All this leads to the seemingly obvious question: If Woodstock 50 doesn’t take place in the same state as the original Woodstock, should it really be called Woodstock? I think you know what the answer is. Look, at the end of the day, this August 16-18 still marks the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival, and there are still some legitimate options for celebrating the big weekend, including shows at the site of the original festival, now called Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, and an in-depth museum exhibit there, too. But I would suggest a much convenient course of action: Fire up your streaming service of choice; purchase the 1970 documentary, Woodstock; and enjoy the weekend with the knowledge that you won’t be taking an unwanted mud bath, sweltering within an inch of your life or listening to a single song by Limp Bizkit.

Update: Less than 24 hours after I wrote this column, the organizers of Woodstock 50 officially cancelled the event.

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