Times change, but Woodstock’s spirit plays on

Museum of Bethel Woods Huge screens tell the Woodstock story at the Museum of Bethel Woods. (Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times)
By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2009

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BETHEL, N.Y. -- Admit it. You’re probably as shocked as I am that the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is next weekend. Can it really be four decades?

I recently visited this sleepy town and the fabled hillside where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sly Stone, The Who, and many others played for a half-million fans amid a peace-and-love vibe that prompted Woodstock to be known as the greatest of all rock fests.

“It was like having all your birthdays and all your Christmases packed into three days,’’ says Duke Devlin, a tie-dyed hippie who now works on the grounds. “Back then we were dropping acid. Now we’re dropping antacid.’’

Yes, times have changed. The festival is just a memory, but the site has been transformed into a tourist destination-cum-pilgrimage for many music lovers. It includes the artifact-stacked Museum at Bethel Woods (opened last year) and the 15,000-capacity Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a four-year-old, state-of-the-art amphitheater where I caught a triple bill of Bob Dylan (who didn’t play the original Woodstock even though he lived in the area), John Mellencamp, and Willie Nelson. Fifteen other shows have been scheduled this summer.

Altogether, it’s a $100 million compound spread across 2,000 acres in dairy farm country. And you won’t have flashbacks about the lack of food or bathrooms that plagued the original festival. If anything, the new complex might be too sanitized, but it truly is spectacular. “For baby boomers, this is their youth,’’ says museum director Wade Lawrence. “But all genders and ages find something to relate to here.’’

Wisely, the owner of the property - local native Alan Gerry, who founded Cablevision Industries and sold it to Time-Warner for $2.7 billion in 1996 - has built on top of the hill and down the other side from the Woodstock stage, leaving those grounds free for people to stare in wonderment toward a gravel patch that marks where Joplin and Hendrix shook the world. “This is a national monument. I’m so glad they didn’t build on this part,’’ says Thomas Reed, a recent visitor, who wrote a college research paper on Woodstock while at Virginia Tech.

The first stop by the entrance is the museum, a copper-roofed, rotunda-shaped building with an intimate outdoor cafe. I’ve been to many music museums and this one qualifies as world class. It houses 330 photos and multiple video rooms spiced by a 132-seat theater showing Woodstock footage with split-screen edits of recent interviews with original performers such as Carlos Santana, Joe Cocker, and Phil Lesh, to younger acts like Vermont’s Grace Potter, who rhapsodizes about Joplin’s influence. But the most compelling video is in a mini-IMAX-like room with 50-foot-tall screens and another overhead that enable you to feel a panorama of the whole experience, right down to the clouds and rain moving in during the show. There are some beanbag chairs in the middle of the room - and young people, especially, flopped on them and soaked up the video immersion.

More clips are shown in a psychedelic, painted hippie bus patterned after the bus of the Merry Pranksters, who were at the festival. There’s also a video booth where you can share personal stories (or hear them) and a touch-screen computer that takes you to all the key sites of the festival - the stage, campgrounds, Hog Farm food areas, and the woods. The museum is very high-tech - just the opposite of Woodstock - and takes two to three hours to go through its entirety.

The museum’s artifacts include everything from Hog Farmer Wavy Gravy’s jumpsuit to “Food for Love’’ tickets, Woodstock brochures, and a keyboard from the group Sha Na Na. (Sorry, no Hendrix guitars.) The artifact section could have been better, but it is compensated by the video installations and the historical context in which the festival is placed. The first third of the museum depicts the cultural climate of the time with exhibits on civil rights, Vietnam, and a timeline of that decade’s events, from the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis to riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. No wonder people needed the escape of Woodstock.

As the time for the Dylan concert approached, I walked toward the amphitheater and passed an open-air building where the excellent local Grateful Dead tribute band Nailed Shutt warmed up the crowd. There are other concert spaces such as the rock-strewn Terrace (which accommodates 500) and the Event Gallery, which has upcoming shows with Richie Havens (who opened Woodstock), John Sebastian, and Tom Rush. I kept walking around a looped sidewalk called Bethel Woods Drive (featuring a tent serving local food from Jill’s Kitchen) and then down to the amphitheater.

Unfortunately, the bliss diminished a bit because it’s a fairly generic amphitheater with overpriced beer ($7 a cup), pricey food ($8 chicken fingers), and bottled water for $4. It was a typical shed experience in that regard. Plus, the booking is by the corporate Live Nation and the concessions are run by Aramark, which has done the same at Fenway Park. The original Woodstock spirit of idealistic optimism was not ample here, but the shed’s sound quality was superb (though Dylan put on another of his mercurial performances), and there was the mesmerizing distraction of beautifully landscaped grounds with bridges, a fountain, and a frog pond, all right on the edge of the woods.

Security was tight near the stage, but fans could frolic down a field at the top of the hill without interference. Looking at the folks gamboling about, you sensed the original freedom of Woodstock, so bravo for that. Indeed, despite the corporate compromises that have been made to bring a modern amphitheater to the site, you still sensed the auras of Hendrix and Joplin as you walked around. And you can’t put a price tag on that.

Steve Morse can be reached at

If You Go

The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts 200 Hurd Road Bethel, N.Y.
Upcoming shows include O.A.R.,
Aug. 12, $20-$35;
Heroes of Woodstock,
Aug. 15 (Levon Helm, Country Joe McDonald, and more perform),
and Boston Pops with Arlo Guthrie,
Aug. 22, $10-$85.

The Museum at Bethel Woods Summer hours
10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.
$13 adults, less for seniors and children.