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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

The brotherhood of Woodstock performers

For Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian and other lesser-known acts, the festival was a defining moment and a big break. Many still perform today.

August 09, 2009|Steve Appleford

Big things happened for Arlo Guthrie in '69. That was the year he got married, bought his farm in western Massachusetts and starred in "Alice's Restaurant," a Hollywood movie based on his popular talkin' blues anthem. And 40 years ago this week, the folk singer also landed at Yasgur's Farm, facing a crowd of nearly half a million at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. He still hears about that one.

"There are a lot more young people these days who have heard of Woodstock and never heard of me," says Guthrie, now 62. "If somebody says, 'Well, who are ya?' And I say, 'I'm one of those guys that played Woodstock.' 'Oh, then there's a table for you, sir!' It still has some clout."

Guthrie has spent the decades since recording and touring, like many surviving Woodstock vets. They see one another now and then, on the road, at Woodstock anniversaries, a fraternity borne during three days of peace, music and mud.

"We're forged in steel for life," says singer-songwriter John Sebastian, 65, who now lives in Woodstock, N.Y., a 50-minute drive from the actual concert site. "Those three days, if you had friends and you were on that site, you'd just be brethren from then on." He continues to perform and record with a traditional jug band and in an acoustic duo with David Grisman.

For the acts lower down the bill, the festival was a defining moment and a big break, delivered worldwide in a 1970 Oscar-winning documentary. "Those people that were able to make that just a part of who they were instead of totally personify them seemed to find more happiness and success," says Holly George-Warren, co-author of "The Road to Woodstock," promoter Michael Lang's chronicle of the festival.

Some have disappeared into obscurity (Quill, the Keef Hartley Band). The last decade has also brought the deaths of such participants as Who bassist John Entwistle, Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden and Jimi Hendrix's drummer Mitch Mitchell.

For Guthrie, Woodstock was an epic gig, but also just one wild weekend in a career that regularly passes through esteemed venues. In the fall, he begins another tour with the Guthrie Family, as his children and grandchildren perform old and new songs, and celebrate the legacy of his father, folk music hero Woody Guthrie. Arlo Guthrie just released "Tales of '69," a recently unearthed recording of a wandering, wordy performance from just before Woodstock.

But the songs he performs in 2009 are not limited to his 1969 set list: "I remember as a younger person saying, 'I could relive this moment for the rest of my life and be successful, or I can be less successful and have more fun. I decided to do the latter."

Opening the festival was Richie Havens, not far removed from his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene. He's on the road most weekends now and every night still performs the rousing hit song he improvised that day, "Freedom." "If I don't, boy, they'll kill me," says Havens, 68.

Havens remains an active artist. He appeared as a wise old man in the 2007 Bob Dylan film meditation "I'm Not There." He sang of a new generation's war on last year's album "Nobody Left to Crown," and he's recorded several tracks with the forward-looking Groove Armada, including the soulful "Hands of Time."

"There's a real open door for collaboration, for experimentation," says Havens. "It's mood music, and that's part of the '60s too."

He will be celebrating the Woodstock anniversary Friday at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, built at the original festival site in Bethel. The venue then hosts the traveling "Heroes of Woodstock" tour, with Country Joe McDonald, Canned Heat, Ten Years After and several others.

Singer-guitarist Leslie West of Mountain plans to get married onstage in the middle of the band's set. "I figured this would be a good way to not forget my anniversary," West says. The reunited Mountain's 2007 album, "Masters of War," was a collection of hard-rock reinterpretations of Dylan songs, including a duet with Ozzy Osbourne on the title track. West has enjoyed unexpected visibility in hip-hop circles since Mountain's "Long Red" was sampled by Jay-Z and Kanye West. "All of a sudden, I've got three platinum albums on my wall for a song I wrote right before the festival," says West.

At Woodstock, singer-guitarist McDonald led the antiwar sing-along of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," a lighthearted but stirring reflection of that year's political moment. He still performs the song but spent many years agonizing over career paths -- solo folk singer or leader of a rock 'n' roll band?

"I'll never get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I'll never get a Grammy," says McDonald, 67, who otherwise sounds content with the long career he's had. "When you . . . sing a song against the government and against the generals, war industry and the president, you're not going to be embraced."

Many of the bigger names from Woodstock are already in the rock hall, while others have enjoyed different kinds of success. In the 1970s, retro rock act Sha Na Na wrote and performed songs in the film "Grease" and hosted its own TV variety show. The group performs about 50 shows a year, opening with "At the Hop," the song that's in the Woodstock movie.

Singer-drummer John "Jocko" Marcellino is one of just two original members still in the band that played at the festival. "I am very grateful for Woodstock, even though the check bounced and it was $350 for all of us, and we got a dollar to be in the movie. It's the greatest eight cents I ever made," says Marcellino, 59.

He just attended the release party for the expanded DVD of the "Woodstock" documentary in New York, where he reunited with other festival alumni, including Havens. "He said, 'Jocko, we look great!' " he says with a laugh. "I gave him a big hug."

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