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Did you hear what I heard? Review of Woodstock 4 [PART 1] @ the Boston Common - 8/18+8/19

Posted by Jonathan Donaldson  August 31, 2012 12:37 PM

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Pretty much any reaction that you might have had to the Woodstock 4 event which took place on the Boston Common on the weekend of 8/18 and 8/19 is understandable. When I arrived, a woman dressed as Mr. Peanut asked me for a cigarette and I gave her one. "Smoked peanuts," I joked. I knew it was going to be a good weekend.

Maybe you didn't hear about it, which I can see happening since it was a free grass-roots event that wasn't hugely publicized. This wasn't intentional. The 'stage managers' of this event (who included Jamaica Plain's Whitehaus-affiliates Arkm Foam, Kate Lee, Con Tex and Frank Hurricane) worked hard to spread the word wide and far (check out this great Matt Parish piece from the Boston Globe). The Woodstock 4 crew sought to encourange the gamut of anything that could be considered contemporary folk music and performance art at this first-come-first-serve event, ranging from traditional folk elements (Chris North's Tom Paxton-sing-a-long was about as stridently folk as you are gonna get) as well as the numerous fringe elements (including lots of portable homemade sound collage work) that dotted the festival's landscape.

[photo: Greg Besun]

Maybe you just think the name was dumb and so you ignored it. I can understand that too. The name of the event did contain a bit of hubris--after all, there are probably lawyers that have the power to determine who can use the name Woodstock in the name of an official event. But was this even an official event? I love the Pandora's Box of this question. It's almost like since no one was making money off of it that nobody with power cares; which reflects the general ethic of a lot of the artists that performed at this festival. Make independent art and distribute it freely.

Woodstock. Who really owns that name? If there can be a festival called Woodstock 94 (technically the 2nd Woodstock festival) that had the Cranberries and Collective Soul playing at it, then I think a little reclaiming of the name was probably in order. Furthermore, if there was an actual Woodstock 4 that was put together today by promoters, managers, lawyers, publicists and booking agents, it would probably be full of Bon Ivers and Coco Rosies and Fleet Foxes. Today's folk classics. Not to disparage those artists, but thank God that they weren't there. This was better. No one is allowed to define this genre. And while it may not be obvious to the mythical 'typical consumer,' music that isn't commercially-geared (in terms of instrumentation, singing style, sound palatte, presentation, aesthetic, etc) has a unique advantage in that it is given the space to show you things that you've never seen before; things which might be disturbing and/or ugly, but also sometimes incredibly gentle or hypnotizing or out of space and time. What a gift. There may not have been any 'star power' at this event which took place in the most prominent shared space Boston has to offer, but I saw more than enough great stuff to last me a whole year.

Maybe your reaction to the event is that it was hard to notice and/or under-attended. I can see that reaction too, although I think that depends on when you came and how long you stuck around. The event lasted for two days (a beautiful sunny Saturday and Sunday), from lunchtime til after 10PM on both days. Between each of the four designated performance areas at the Commons (one at the State House, one a little further down the path towards Charles St at the Founders Plaque, one at the high point of the Commons at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and one at the Cross Paths location near the Frog Pond), there may have been anywhere from five to fifty onlookers at any given time. This includes people that were there specifically for the music and people who were just at the Commons walking through or for a stroll or with their families. Certainly a lot of the audience members were performers, because there were so many performers!

The event featured 2 days each with 160 acts playing 15 minute sets across 4 stages. Many acts had multiple members. This means that before and after their sets, anywhere from 400-500 musicians were walking around from performance area to performance area as suited their whimsy (as I did). Even you aren't very good at math, you can probably figure out that a good number of the total audience also played at the event (Including me, who although I haven't busked in 10 or so years, even took a stab at playing a 15 minute set). Refreshingly, Woodstock 4 left very little separation between 'artists' and 'onlookers.'

It could just be that every one of us is just a guitar or a transistor or a neon megaphone away from being a performer. Before you get all huffy and say that the idea that everyone is an artist leads to art being watered down, or that this is part of the whole 'everyone gets a prize' syndrome that is ruining American, please consider this: by being conditioned to believe that artists are special and that we either are an artist or we are not, we are giving an awful lot of power to those who are put in the position of making those decisions. Amazingly, we often make those decisions about ourselves. Who says that we either have talent or we don't?

Anyone who could sing joined in this particular sing-along. Check out this Soundcloud link to hear Chris North lead a chorus of musicians and singers through "Peace Will Come" and "To Anacreon in Heaven"

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jonathan Donaldson is a Boston-based musician, writer, and second-generation music junkie. An Ohio native who moved to Boston in 1998, Jonathan's musical loves include R&B, psych, punk, bubblegum, country, electronic, More »

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