Even now, 51 years to the day, the performance by Grateful Dead at the legendary Woodstock Music Festival still leaves a mark. Although, for a variety of reasons, it’s a mark that the band and any eyewitnesses that evening may not wish to remember fondly. Weather, electrical and all the other ever-sprouting issues that arose during Woodstock all played factors that resulted in what many deem a less than memorable performance put forth by the Western newcomers that many had heard of but few had seen before.
Due to scheduling issues and incessant rain, the band’s set on August 16, 1969 had already been pushed back from Saturday late afternoon to a 10:30 pm start time. By then, rain and the resulting mud had conquered the Bethel, NY festival grounds. The giant throng of spectators splayed across the hillside were getting soaked and restless waiting for the next act to start. Up until this point, the Grateful Dead were still only a band “on the rise” that was very much new to an East Coast crowd, by and large.
The inauspicious start began when the band’s notoriously heavy gear caused the rotating stage that was being used to sink completely into the mud – something they had warned the event staff about beforehand. Phil Lesh’s bass monitor was somehow picking up the on-site helicopter’s radio signal. And the Dead’s sound technician, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, was making alterations to what he considered an inadequate in-house PA system. It resulted in him improperly grounding the stage equipment and giving new meaning to the term “electric rock.”
Band members recall feeling a “light tingle” whenever they would touch their instruments. This all culminated with a now famous story about guitarist Bob Weir being thrown across the stage, supposedly during the “Saint Stephen” that began the show.
It was raining toads when we played. The rain was part of our nightmare. The other part was our sound man, who decided that the ground situation on the stage was all wrong. It took him about two hours to change it, which held up the show. He finally got it set the way he wanted it, but every time I touched my instrument, I got a shock. The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.~ Bob Weir, Rolling Stone interview
Audio recordings only contain the first two minutes of the opening number, likely a result of this mishap. Things immediately lighten up a little afterwards with “Mama Tried,” a Merle Haggard song that the Dead had started covering earlier that year.
The awkward start-and-stop rhythm of the show then rears its ugly head again thanks to another ten minutes of delay in order to deal with the sound setup. A “spirited” Ken Babbs from the Merry Pranksters takes to the MC role during this part of the show as he tries his best to entertain a crowd of hippies growing increasingly damp and restless. This also gives Country Joe McDonald the chance to pop up onstage and warn everyone about the “green acid” that was going around.
After all the sound issues are resolved, the band launches into a moody “Dark Star” that serves as one of the musical highlights of the night. The near 20-minute rendition stretches out and descends into near ambience before rounding back into form. It features wonderful fills and textures provided by early keys player Tom Constanten who seems to be turned up abnormally high in this recording.
Once the “Dark Star” burned out, the band trotted out another new number with “High Time” – a sentiment that was no doubt shared by many this evening. Garcia’s vocals come through aptly but this isn’t exactly a song to get a crowd up and dancing. The slow, drab composition seemed to be reflective of the current atmosphere.
The band seems to cut their losses and ends theit set with a “Turn On Your Lovelight” that stretches out to almost 40 minutes. However,it starts with even more mayhem thanks to another “spirited” individual who jumps on stage and exclaims to everyone about “seeing the sun rise over the lake” and a “third Coast.” All this while the band is quietly playing the instrumental open to the song underneath it all.
While it does seem to finally inject some life into the set, not even a Pigpen rap would be enough to save this show. The extensive jam meanders and shifts from pscychedelia to blues and back with little direction in between. It marked the end of a set that had high hopes at first but falls flat in its delivery thanks to the weather, sound issues, lucid ramblings from MCs and stage crashers alike, and one of the guitarists getting visibly electrocuted on stage.
Grateful Dead Woodstock Music Festival Bethel, NY 8/16/69
St. Stephen (cut), Mama Tried -> High Time (false start), Dark Star ->High Time, Turn On Your Love Light