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Somehow, Woodstock Was Pretty Cool : All that mud was worth something, even if this '94 version didn't define a generation and didn't have enough contemporary acts--like Nine Inch Nails. It offered a good time and might spawn future events.

August 16, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

SAUGERTIES, N.Y. — "Look at that (expletive)," John Scher, co-producer of Woodstock '94, said forcefully backstage Sunday afternoon. He was pointing to a blimp flying over the festival grounds, advertising a major beer company to the more than quarter-million fans.

"Those (expletive). I turned their money down, and there they are with their (expletive) blimp," he said, explaining that festival directors had rejected millions of dollars in sponsorship offers by beer and tobacco companies.

It felt good to Scher to be calling someone else names after all the names he had been called since plans for Woodstock '94 were announced.

To many in the rock world, the idea of another weekend festival violated the innocence and legacy of the original 1969 Woodstock, especially since it would be a $30-million affair with various sponsorship pacts and moneymaking side ventures.

"I couldn't believe all the (expletive) when we started out," Scher continued, sitting on a golf cart that he used to maneuver around the 840-acre site. "They said the tickets were too high . . . the concert rules too (restrictive). But that wasn't all. They also said, 'How dare you tamper with the Woodstock legacy?'

"Well, the people who put on the first Woodstock were out to make money too. The only reason it turned into a free festival was that they didn't do it right. It's a miracle that everyone who went (to that festival) got through it all right.

"We wanted to make sure everything was done right this time and you know what? Take a look around--we've got 350,000 people out there today and they're having the time of their lives."

Pride was evident in Scher's face as well-wishers stopped to congratulate him on recapturing some of the gentle spirit of the 1969 weekend.

Even Trent Reznor, one of the leaders of the alternative rock scene that has long complained about the commercialization of the mainstream rock world, had praise for the show.

Midway during a splendid set by his band Nine Inch Nails on Saturday night, Reznor looked out at the massive crowd--from those colliding in the mosh pit in front of the stage to those in the tent village hundreds of yards away.

"I thought this was going to suck," Reznor said. "But it was pretty cool."

And much of Woodstock '94 was cool.

There was little evidence that the festival will have anywhere near the musical and cultural impact of the original Woodstock, whose power was driven by a restless generation coming of age and the music that heralded their independence.

But most of the quarrels with Woodstock '94 turned out to be on aesthetic grounds--too few contemporary acts who could speak to the twentysomething audience with the eloquence and vision of the best of the original Woodstock acts.

In other regards, however, the festival earned high marks, despite the near-chaos that occurs when hundreds of thousands of fans are gathered in one place for three days, intent on having a good time.

At times, as when you hear about four deaths (two on the grounds because of pre-existing medical conditions and two others in a traffic accident on the way home) and the number of people treated in the medical tents (more than 1,500), you wonder if it's worth all the trouble.

The parking alone, with buses taking fans to and from parking lots up to 30 miles away, proved nightmarish at times. Sunday evening there were estimates that it would take nearly 24 hours to get everyone back to the lots.

Compared to most '60s and '70s festivals, however, Woodstock '94 was as smooth as a contemporary theme park, with considerable evidence of concern for the safety and comfort of fans.

This was due in part to both the efforts of concert organizers--PolyGram Diversified Ventures, of which Scher is president, and Woodstock Ventures, headed by the men behind the original Woodstock--and stringent state and local regulations governing large public gatherings.

At press conferences through the weekend, some state authorities praised both the concert producers and the peacefulness of the audience. For the most part, fans too were enthusiastic as they began the long journey home Sunday.

Does this mean there will be a rash of festivals around the country?

Woodstock '94 doesn't just mark the return of Woodstock, but also of the festival concept that was dismissed as a dinosaur a decade ago, its bones buried at Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore, Calif., site of the ill-fated US Festival.

Scher, one of the nation's most prominent concert producers, said other promoters around the country are no doubt poised to experiment with festival concepts, but the jury is still out on the money issue.

Because fewer than 200,000 of the available 250,000 tickets were believed to have been sold, the concert part of the Woodstock '94 operation lost up to $7 million. The goal is to make that up and add millions more on a documentary film and album, as well as other merchandising.

If there are more festivals, you can bet that there will be fans waiting. The word is already out.

"We all have read about what goes on at festivals," said one fatigued, mud-covered young man who had driven here from Philadelphia. "Now we have our own stories to tell."

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