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A brief history of Woodstock anniversaries

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A few weeks after Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (BWCA) announced it would hold a three-day event in honor of the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock Festival, promoter Michael Lang announced he too was holding an anniversary event. He also asserted that his was the “official” anniversary event, and some publications, including the bible of the entertainment industry, Variety, followed his lead, promoting his—rather than Bethel’s—as the real celebration.

Lang, of course, is one of the producers of the original Woodstock Concert in 1969, and as such he has a right to use the name “Woodstock 50.” His event will be held in Watkins Glen, which is about 150 miles away from Bethel Woods, the site of the original Woodstock. It’s a little like planning two anniversary events for the Battle of Gettysburg, and saying the one on the battlefield itself is unofficial, while the one in Pittsburgh is the official one, because the promoter of the Pittsburgh anniversary can trace his lineage back to Robert E. Lee.

In any case, two anniversary events are planned, and judging by past history, there will no doubt be very different experiences between the two. Lang has said that Bethel Woods is not a large enough venue for his vision of the anniversary, which includes a crowd estimated at 100,000. His anniversary will be held on the 1,000-acre Watkins Glen International race track.

In the past, Lang events have ranged far beyond that number. The 1969 original had 400,000 to 500,000, depending on whom you believe, and that number overwhelmed rural Sullivan County at the time.

On anniversary 25 in 1994, Lang held Woodstock ’94 on a farm in Saugerties, NY, about 75 miles from Bethel. Customers bought 164,000 tickets to the festival, but according to ultimateclassicrock.com, the crowd ultimately grew to 350,000. Because of the overwhelming crowds, the organizers could not enforce their rules, including one that said concertgoers couldn’t bring their own beer. The rules, in true Woodstock fashion, went out the window. The event also became known as Mudstock, because of the ceaseless rain, but people appeared to enjoy the musical performances.

Four years later, before the establishment of BWCA, the Gerry Foundation, which owned the site of the original Woodstock Concert, staged A Day in the Garden, celebrating the 29th anniversary of the concert. The event was a daytime-only affair, with no overnight camping. Plans for Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (BWCA) were already underway, and the careful attention to detail and management that BWCA would become known for was already apparent.

Haven James of Woodstock Times wrote at the time (http://bit.ly/WoodstockTimes), “It is a new, well-funded, and, at least on paper, highly organized unit with long-range plans, goals and targets with pictures and arrows on 8x10 glossies. No, Arlo won’t be there, but of course Richie Havens will, along with Ten Years After, Melanie, and Pete Townshend.” The event was a success, and the next year, in 1999, there were four more days of music on the hallowed grounds, as the Gerry Foundation gradually moved forward with plans to establish a world-class performing venue on the site.

In July 1999, Lang and associates staged Woodstock ‘99, which according to most accounts, became one of the most unpleasant experiences in outside-concert history. It was held in Rome, NY, some 140 miles from Bethel, at the Griffiss Air Force Base, where the tarmac and cement magnified the sizzling summer temperatures, and water was selling at $4 per bottle. About 400,000 attended the festival. According to Rolling Stone, (http://bit.ly/WoodstockRS) there were multiple incidences of sexual assault during the event, including an assault that involved multiple attackers at once during a set by Korn. The article said, “According to reports, even more sexual assaults took place during Limp Bizkit, after Fred Durst infamously incited the crowd with ‘Break Stuff.’”

And there was more mayhem. “Bonfires broke out throughout the crowd. Vehicles were flipped and set ablaze. Vendor booths and tents were destroyed and used as fuel. Eventually, the New York State Troopers and local law enforcement were able to diffuse the riots, but Griffiss Air Force Base still ended up looking like a bomb hit it.”

Just a few years later, in 2006, BWCA opened with a performance of the New York Philharmonic and has been doing so every summer since.

Lang has not offered a Woodstock Anniversary Concert in 20 years. 

While both events scheduled for this August can trace their routes to the 1969 Woodstock Concert, there is likely to be quite a difference in tone and execution between them, and they are likely to draw entirely different audiences.

woodstock, BWCA

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