Woodstock 1969: High Times
But the band that had the most to gain that day was a little-known English group called Ten Years After. The quartet’s name came from the fact that the band got going “10 years after” the beginning of rock and roll, but their true roots went back much further than that, to the classic blues of Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and similar artists. At a time when these masters were being ignored in their own country, they were being lionized by British musicians, including Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Savoy Brown.
To this mix, Ten Years After brought a heightened level of intensity, stamina and indefatigability. Much credit was due to guitarist Alvin Lee, who was described as having the fastest fingers on the planet. His raw tone and style were key to the group’s sound and credibility among electric blues players and enthusiasts, and his playing helped induce hysteria among audience members. Still, only a small percentage of U.S. rock fans knew of Ten Years After when they performed at Woodstock. That was about to change.
For the show, Lee played his cherry-red Gibson ES-335 embellished with peace-sign decals, the same guitar he used from the band’s 1967 debut and well into his subsequent solo career. The group’s set included their lascivious version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning, Little School Girl” and their own songs “I May Be Wrong, But I Won’t Always Be Wrong” and “Hear Me Calling.” But the pièce de résistance was the set closer, “I’m Going Home,” a performance that raised the audience’s level of excitement and joy to a new level. The song became a highlight of the subsequent Woodstock soundtrack album and film, raising Ten Years After to star status and securing Alvin Lee’s place in the pantheon of guitar heroes.
ALVIN LEE Woodstock was just a name on a date sheet. We were in the middle of a tour. It meant nothing to us until we got there and they said, “You can’t get there by vehicle, you have to go in by helicopter.” And that was the first inkling that it was going to be a different sort of day.
After going on at three in the afternoon, we ended up playing for about an hour. It was a pretty high-energy set. That’s what Ten Years After is all about: to boogie down, have a good time and play lots of riffs around, and that’s basically it. I thought a lot of the things being said from the stage were embarrassing. They were all going on and going, “Oh wow, man, we’ve got a whole city here,” and that kind of stuff. I think it’s best to go on and say, “Let’s have a good time, rock and roll, bang the drums and just boogie down.” That’s my message.
It was some 12 hours after Ten Years After performed that Crosby, Stills & Nash went onstage, with Neil Young accompanying them on some of the songs. By then the audience was starting to thin out. Hunger, filth, incessant rain and general exhaustion had taken their toll, and undoubtedly many attendees hoped to depart before the roads became clogged again with traffic. But the numerous people that remained were among the first ever to see Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young perform together. As individuals, each had made a name for himself: Crosby with the Byrds, Stills and Young in Buffalo Springfield, and Nash with English pop group the Hollies. Together, however, they were a force to be reckoned with. Though Young had joined so near to the Woodstock performance that he barely considered himself part of the band, rock’s newest supergroup arrived at the festival less to perform than to be coronated as the hippies’ new reigning kings.
LARRY JOHNSON (Woodstock sound supervisor) Neil didn’t want to be in the movie. He didn’t want to be filmed, so you can only see his arm. At that point and time he was a sort of add-on to CSN; they hadn’t actually become “& Young” yet. It was only the second gig they had played live. Young felt that he was a sideman and didn’t want to be a part of it. He felt, “You can film those guys,” and that’s just how he is. I don’t know if he regrets that now or not, because we could’ve certainly have used the footage.
STEPHEN STILLS Our equipment almost didn’t get there. We were going to use a potpourri of the Jefferson Airplane’s and the Band’s equipment to play, but it showed up just in the nick of time.
DAVID CROSBY It was incredible. It’s probably the strangest thing that has ever happened in the world. Can I describe what it looked like flying in on the helicopter, man? Like an encampment of the Macedonian army on the Greek hills, crossed with the biggest batch of gypsies that you ever saw. I’m asked about Woodstock so often I usually feign only a dim recollection of it. But the truth is my memory of it is very good. I loved it. I thought it was a very heartfelt, wonderful, accidentally great thing where a lot of incredible music got played. There was a genuine feeling of brotherhood among the people who were there.
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