Monday, July 24, 2006

Below, check out a don't-miss article by my Ed about the opening night concert we attended at Bethel Woods, which is on the grounds of the original Woodstock site. This was published in the Financial Times Arts & Weekend section with a big pic of the post-concert fireworks. And Ed might be embarrassed by my kvelling about his stuff, but that's what you get for hooking up with an American, boy-o!

No sign of the spirit of '69
By Ed Holland

You had to be there, man. Hurd Road, in the sleepy, blameless town of Bethel in upstate New York, hadn't seen traffic like this for 37 years. Actually it had never seen traffic like this. In 1969 it had funnelled the ragged masses of the long-haired, the tie-dyed, the flowered, the drugged and the defiantly young before they debouched blissfully from their multicoloured VWs into the natural amphitheatre of the greatest happening in the history of the counterculture.

In 2006, by way of contrast, it was a long, sleek armada of Mercedes SUVs and BMW convertibles that, chivvied and channelled by the state traffic police, bore their moneyed, groomed, overwhelmingly middle-aged occupants to the smooth gravel rows of Parking Area South.

At the original Woodstock festival, they sent in army helicopters only when the bedraggled foot soldiers of the Age of Aquarius looked as if they might starve to death. Now, on the night of the inaugural concert at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the spanking new open-air "facility" constructed on the site of the epochal 1960s event, the parking lot hummed with the kind of purposeful movement that suggested one had stumbled upon the staging area for a military invasion years in the planning.

Of course, no one apart from a few hippie veterans was expecting, much less hoping, that the anarchy of Woodstock would be recreated. It was the New York Philharmonic performing at the opening night, not Hendrix. But surely a little of its spirit would endure amid the tasteful landscaping, the paved walkways and the interpretive centre (that essential component of the 21st century cultural venue). Surely, after paying $20 for the privilege of sitting on the lawn, one might feel free to throw off bourgeois restraint for an evening and indulge wildly in a small picnic or, perhaps, a bottle of wine with one's fellow music-lovers underneath the warm summer sky. Isn't that what you're supposed to do at these things, at Tanglewood, at Kenwood House, at Central Park?

Not if the organisers had anything to do with it. Amid the fanfare in the run-up to opening night, Bethel Woods had also laid out, in a depressing little euphemism, its guest policies. A handy primer on how not to enjoy yourself, this turned out to be a long, petty and exhaustive list of prohibitions on what guests - that is to say, paying customers - might bring to the concert or do while at it: no food, no booze, no soft drinks, no drink coolers, no smoking. No nothing. Sit there quietly on your blanket (permitted) and enjoy the show.

In fact it is not quite accurate to say that no drink was allowed. In a concession of bureaucratic and surreal specificity, the organisers had determined that it was acceptable to bring "one bottle of factory-sealed water per person". At Woodstock, famously, the only policy to which guests were subject was not to take the acid if it was brown. At Bethel Woods, the partying hordes were enjoined not to drink the water if it came in a bottle that was not factory-sealed. There were those who complained that this contravened the spirit of '69. It would also have contravened the spirit of the average church bazaar, village fete or knitting circle. Far out.

Thus, as I approached the turnstiles, all thoughts of music had been pushed aside by a single urgent question: would my wife get in with her cunningly concealed block of cheese (not factory-sealed) and plastic knife? (Metal knives were banned, possibly for anti-terrorism reasons, as if we were boarding an airliner rather than entering a large field.) In a victory for hedonists everywhere, she got through without a hitch. Others had not been so lucky. At the foot of each gate lay long, admonitory lines of confiscated bottles, like the rows of guns and knives the police like to display for the cameras after a successful raid. Clearly there were guests who had been unaware of the policies or could not believe they would be enforced. I saw wine, beer, Coca-Cola, champagne and scotch. But the most prized catch must have been the single, incriminating bottle of unopened Perrier that stood there. Either the celebrated French mineral water is not factory-sealed or, more intriguingly, not water.

Once inside, or as inside as it's possible to get in a thousand-acre meadow, I was interested to note the presence, at intervals of about 10 yards, of a string of concession stands, all topped by the familiar Budweiser logo and emitting the universally recognisable aroma of frying fat. A Coors Light in a plastic bottle or a limp hamburger served on a cardboard dish was at all times close at hand. One could have been at any sports stadium. The thinking behind the policies became clear: less puritanical bossiness (although the forbidding of alcohol to "those appearing under 30 years of age" suggested this played a part) than commercial logic: if you must eat and drink during your Tchaikovsky, then you'll have to buy it from us.

Gnawed by thirst and daunted by the prospect of three hours of light classical music without refreshment, I queued to buy a mini-bottle of Chardonnay for $5. When I got back to my blanket I noticed that all my wine had leaked out through a crack in the little plastic beaker. I felt a lowering of the mood and, as darkness fell, took a walk around the astonishingly beautiful grounds.

Then, towards the end of the "1812 Overture", the cannon smoke cleared to reveal, dotted across the immaculate grass, the sight of a hundred picnics being openly consumed. Some reckless, romantic souls had taken on the soulless money men and outwitted them with smuggled camembert, cherries and Sauvignon Blanc. Fight the power! The music ended and a stupendous firework display filled the sky. For a moment, the acrid tang of the gunpowder smelt like victory.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006