Sharps & flats

"Let me stand next to your fire" and other joyful idiocies prop up two CDs' worth of Woodstock 99 live cuts.

Topics: Taking Woodstock, Music,

Sharps & flats

It’s hard to imagine a music festival ending in anything but a fiery riot when its postprandial two-CD companion set begins with Korn and ends with Bruce Hornsby. There’s one group summoning a thousands-strong sing-along to the less than affirming words, “What if I should die!?” And then there’s a curly-haired square best known for his musical invitation to “listen to the mandolin rain.” Forget about Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst’s needling fans at Woodstock 99 to “smash stuff”; the presence of the offensively bland Bruce Hornsby is probably as much to blame for the festival’s incendiary send-off. Though the “Woodstock 99″ collection’s opening and closing tracks don’t coordinate with the festival’s schedule, they serve as bookend reminders that certain things are to be expected when hydrogen mingles with an open flame.

A bold line separates the two disks of “Woodstock 99.” Maybe with a cheeky nod to the Beatles’ hits collections, they are referred to as the “Red Album” (for our purposes, the flame) and the “Blue Album” (as suitable a color for hydrogen as any). As postcards from the land of ceaseless sweat and $4 water, they deliver disparate messages: One says something along the lines of “Fuck you! And you, too!”; the other, “Honey, I’ve met some of the most interesting people here.”

The “Red Album” begins with the aforementioned scorn from Korn, and plays out in much the same fashion. Buckcherry delivers “Lit Up,” a decidedly unsubtle anthem for cocaine, dicing up lyrics like, “Chop a line for the fiending man, the fucker wants one.” So as not to obscure the song’s message, Buckcherry charges, AC/DC-style, into the chorus: “I love the cocaine, love the cocaine.” Moving along, Kid Rock waxes devotional with a shout-out to, “All the crackheads, the critics, the cynics/All my fucking heroes in the methadone clinics.” Limp Bizkit nimbly streams between sheer rage and jauntily spacey vocal toasting in “Show Me What You Got.” The track borrows the Beastie Boys’ two-word refrain, “Hey ladies,” harking back to the days when the Beastie Boys were still beasty, and not yet preachy. Limp Bizkit — the band that incited one of the most violent flare-ups of the festival and unwittingly played through an alleged mosh pit rape — wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unlike a sizable portion of their diskmates, Metallica weld no reference to hip-hop to their metal. As a result, they come off as timelessly roaring but dated on “Creeping Death.” More contemporary is hip-hopper DMX, even if his sing-along — Q: “Where my dogs at?” A: “Woof, woof, woof” — is the only moment on the disk sillier than Live’s Ed Kowalczyk failing to get the crowd to chant a five-syllable “Lu-u-u-u-uv.”

The “Red Album” features its fair share of laughable moments, all of which serve as its saving grace. Even the festival MC’s plea for the crowd to part so that the “good firemen” can get through to the burning light tower — right before the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” no less — is a bit of a joke. For all the laughs and all of its musical miscues, the first volume is still a ton of fun..

The same cannot be said, however, for much of the “Blue Album.” Tellingly, it opens with the Dave Matthews Band crowing “Tripping Blues.” Matthews’ music is undeniably infectious, but if ever there was an irritate-by-numbers brand of festival music, he’s painting it. The same goes for Brian Setzer’s reprise of his Stray Cats hit “Rock This Town,” with his swinging orchestra. The big band renders the song expertly, but God save anyone trying to grant the band or the song any semblance of relevance. Jewel does well in summoning a Fleetwood Mac-type haunted melody in “Down So Long,” but comes off a bit too much like Jewel to save herself. And, as evidenced by her listlessly screaming attempt at evocation, she is no Janis Joplin. Sheryl Crow comes much closer to pulling off the same feat through the fatalistic cool in her “If It Makes You Happy.”

Elvis Costello weighs in as a stiff competitor to Bruce Hornsby for the collection’s most puzzling inclusion. The No Longer Angry or Young Man delivers his 22-year-old song, “Allison,” with the type of passion to be expected from a singer now more at home at the side of Burt Bacharach. His version here has a certain swan-song beauty about it, but sounds dearly out of place in the company it keeps. Better toeing the line between earnestness and energy is Guster;
their “Airport Song” bleeds from its heart before oozing like a sore by way of distortion and the most hearty of the collection’s many “thank you Woodstock” screaming send-offs. Alanis Morissette whirls like a dervish through “So Pure,” while Jamiroquai whirls like Stevie Wonder through “Black Capricorn Day.”

And on and on “Woodstock 99″ goes, appropriately spinning forth a record of what was by all accounts a dizzying three-day affair. As a report from the annals of modern-day pop music, it earns a good grade for its refusal to be pieced together in anything approaching a sensible fashion. The most recent installment of the Woodstock franchise may not go down in history as more than a blight on the “Peace, Love, etc.” tradition it naively purported to serve (note the irony of having a rape organization mentioned in the liner notes), but that doesn’t make the music any less worthy of at least a cursory listen — even if it’s for nothing more than the peculiar joy that follows hearing one of the festival organizers deadpan an introduction of Bruce Hornsby as “one of the consummate musicians in the world today.”

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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