Woodstock's wicked soundtrack

Review: The CD set from this summer's concert debacle reminds us that, throughout the mayhem, the acts were rocking.

October 19, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The accepted wisdom is that Woodstock '99 was the worst of the three Woodstocks. Where the first offered peace and love, this one had riots and rapes. Where Woodstock II ended with thousands holding "peace candles" and singing along to Peter Gabriel, Woodstock '99 found rampaging fans setting trailers on fire.

Instead of providing a generation's defining moment, the three-day festival proved an embarrassing debacle. For the audience, the Woodstock legacy seemed little more than an excuse to indulge in drug abuse, exhibitionism and vandalism, while the promoters, desperate to avoid the prospect of another profit-free festival, seemed out to squeeze every possible penny out of the crowd. It was the sort of event that left everyone involved looking bad.

But the music was actually pretty good.

In fact, the double-CD set "Woodstock '99" (Epic 63770, arriving in stores today), may well be the best of the Woodstock soundtracks. No matter what went on in the rest of the compound, the 32 performances presented here suggest that the action onstage was consistently strong -- on occasion, even brilliant. It's almost enough to make those who didn't go wish they had.

Granted, it's not as if the first two Woodstocks were especially impressive on album. The 1969 show spun off two multi-disc albums (plus the inevitable CD boxed set), but apart from performances by Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone and Santana, most of the music is either painfully dated or distressingly pedestrian. (Need I even mention Sha-Na-Na?)

There was even less luminance to the bright spots on "Woodstock '94." For all its self-congratulatory stylistic diversity, the music came to life only when the performers -- particularly Nine Inch Nails, Metallica and Violent Femmes -- kicked it up a notch and played like they really were trying to make their mark on music history.

By contrast, it sounds like almost every band on "Woodstock '99" is out to kick a little butt. It helps, of course, that at least half of the lineup consists of acts that are in-your-face aggressive. Certainly everything on the set's "Red Disc," which includes tracks by Metallica, Limp

Bizkit, Korn, Rage Against the Machine and DMX, qualifies on that count, but there's a surprising amount of edge to the ostensibly cooler "Blue Disc" -- most notably in Sheryl Crow's gritty "If It Makes You Happy" and the Chemical Brothers' throbbing "Block Rockin' Beats."

Although none of the artists included on the set take much in the way of chances, sticking mostly to big hits or current singles, neither do any disappoint particularly. OK, so Jewel's boopity-boo scat singing on "Down So Long" is more annoying than amusing, and Buckcherry's cocaine-is-cool anthem "Lit Up" seems like the work of a post-lobotomy Guns N' Roses, but there's relatively little silliness or self-indulgence littering the album.

Instead, we get tough, muscular playing from the Dave Matthews Band, whose "Tripping Billies" showcases the interplay between violinist Boyd Tinsley and drummer Carter Beauford; intense, complex thrash from Korn in "Blind"; unexpected virtuosity from Kid Rock and company on the pulsingly vivid "Bawitaba"; spring-loaded political rock from Rage Against the Machine, whose "Bulls on Parade" neatly splits the difference between hip-hop and hard rock; and dry wit from G. Love & Special Sauce, whose "Cold Beverage" manages to be both soulful and slyly topical.

For what it's worth, the promoters of Woodstock '99 have announced that a portion of the profits from this album will be donated to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. While some might take that as a desperate attempt to reduce the stigma that reports of sexual assaults have left on Woodstock '99, it would be nice to think that this album could undo some of the harm wrought by the audience's worst excesses.

`Woodstock '99'

(Epic 63770)

Sun score ***

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