Well, there’s a title for you. “Woodstock” was the song Iain Matthews, post-Fairport Convention, took to the top of the UK charts 53 years ago. Neither he nor his band, Matthews Southern Comfort, actually played at Yasgur’s Farm the year before, but, this side of the pond, it became the best-known version of Joni Mitchell’s song. The band actually fell apart within a year; Matthews was uncomfortable with the fame and bored with the pedal-steel-drenched country tropes now expected of him. Instead, he plowed on with a solo career and with another band, Plainsong.
Plainsong broke up and later reformed, and in 2010, Matthews decided to do the same for Matthews Southern Comfort. He’s since flitted between the three versions of himself, pursuing whatever suits him, under the brand it might suit best. (You might recall he, as Plainsong, covered the songs of Richard Farina with Andy Roberts on 2015’s Re-inventing Richard.) For The Woodstock Album, he has chosen the Matthews Southern Comfort moniker.
The idea behind The Woodstock Album was to pick a selection of artists who played at Woodstock, and some of the iconic songs they played there. Given that Matthews’ metier is very much of a folk-tinged country/country-tinged folk, these would neither ape nor echo the originals, but would hopefully give a fresh new spin on the material. Given many of the songs are not without some considerable covers history, this might be conceived a brave idea, especially as the tracklist becomes apparent. Let’s see.
The first thing to note about The Woodstock Album is that that song is not included. I guess, having already performed it, in his style, no sense in gilding the lily. Anyway, Joni didn’t write it until after the festival. But the album does open with perhaps the toughest gig of all, Joe Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Sounding live in the studio, a 1,2,3,4 introduces it, before an accordion spins out the familiar tune. Matthews, to be honest, has lost a deal of the purity of his voice over the intervening decades, and it is thus uncertain whether the slight raggedness here is intended or an affectation. A little thin to my ears, the harmony vocals lift it a little, but it all seems a tad plodding.
“Bad Moon Rising” succumbs also to being a little wan, but the swampy squelch of the backing has some appeal. A good electric piano solo, from current band member Bart De Win, lifts it a bit, but it feels more a heavy shower than a storm. Thank goodness interest is well and truly ignited by track three, “Purple Haze,” perhaps the hardest to imagine in Matthews’ hands. But it is a triumph, De Win’s piano carrying the main thrust of the melody. All infused with a rootsy swagger, his voice is perfect for this inventive workout. Despite having the competent guitar of Bart Jan Baaartmans, his playing remains lurking in the shadows, if still bubbling away with some finesse. I can see this troubling our year-end Best Covers list.
The C,S,N & Y selection, “4+20,” really a solo by Stephen Stills, gets a fairly straight version, the harmony vocal making it sound a little how it might, had Stills given his buddies airtime. Baartmans adds some smooth slide that adds a dreamy resonance. It’s good. Who now can recall the Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & the Trinity were at Woodstock? Not me, but they were, their best-known song being their cover of Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire.” The version here is a curious hybrid of the original and its better-known iteration, again blessed with some sprightly guitar, a slightly Middle Eastern feel creeping in. Sort of as if there were a Leonard Cohen version to take leaves from as well. A marvelous zydeco hit of accordion transforms “In The Country,” and I am forgiving the stumbling start to The Woodstock Album already. It must have been a blast to put together.
Trying to remember the provenance of “High Time” was tricky, until the moment Mathews opens his mouth. Suddenly there comes the realization he now sounds a little like Jerry Garcia. This is a faithful and pleasing version of the Grateful Dead classic, with accordion, mandolin, electric piano and guitar the main instrumentation, the harmonies as ragged as on the Workingman’s Dead original. “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die Rag” then manages the near impossible, by not sounding kitsch and dated. Well, not as much as feared, the positive vote more down to the chutzpah of even trying. Perhaps the added value of covering Richie Havens’ version of “Let’s Get Together” was all-around completeness, too, the brevity here almost the best thing about it. (But it did give me the knowledge, as I researched how Havens had done it, that he too played “With A Little Help Of My Friends” at Woodstock. Unmemorably.)
I am sure the S word is beginning to cross minds, so I am delighted to report that the band gifts “Evil Ways” a stripped-back sheen that way bettered any expectation, an impassioned vocal, stark strums of electric, shimmering piano, and hardly any percussion other than in the delivery. Masterful, even if an unbidden whiff of “I Feel The Earth Move” creeps in. Great guitar and keyboards grace the arrangement again.
“If I Was A Carpenter” gets a very faithful and affectionate vocal take, with perhaps the best vocal on the album, the arrangement sufficiently nuanced to add luster. (Oddly, I find it closest to Robert Plant’s cover of this Tim Hardin classic.) “Everyday People” can’t make up its mind as to whether it is a folk blues or whether elements of Sly Stone’s soulful posturing really need to be there or not. Not would be my view, that aspect spoiling what might have worked better without.
“Spinning Wheel,” in its original form, is an OTT monster of hokey and hoary vocal overkill. I am pleased to report that any temptation to replicate is avoided. Which, a little sadly, shows how slight a song it becomes without the dulcet tones of David Clayton-Thomas. De Win tries hard to liven it up, at least, a fairground effect at the end a neat idea. But, as this recording is demonstrating so well, killer can so swiftly follow filler. This again proves the case as Matthews offers up a gracefully battered take on “Darlin’ Be Home Soon,” his voice as road-weary as the lyric, the accordion making for a sensitive bed for him.
Which sort of fits, also for a surprising “My Generation,” slowed and pared right down, sounding very much a song of embittered experience, as growing old has suddenly crept up and shown itself. A warning for the young, rather than for the old. I’ve never heard the lyric quite in this way and it makes for an ominous epitaph to this celebration, if it is, of the Woodstock Generation.
Two other songs dripped out, digitally, as the flip of “singles,” ahead of The Woodstock Album and are not on the release: “To Love Somebody” and “Find The Cost Of Freedom.” I guess there was only room for the one CSNY song, but it is a pity, as it is a stunning pin-drop of a version. As to the Bee Gees song, I had to scour about the net to see who played at Woodstock, discovering Janis Joplin had given it an airing. Clearly nothing like her holler, it is a decent version and could certainly have nudged out one of the less well-considered covers. Or joined them, as an extra. But then it could not have been subtitled 13 Songs of Peace, Love & Understanding.
The Woodstock Album tracklisting:
1. With a Little Help From My Friends (The Beatles original, as covered by Joe Cocker)
2. Bad Moon Rising (Creedence Clearwater revival cover)
3. Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix cover)
4. 4+20 (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cover)
5. This Wheel’s On Fire (Bob Dylan original, as covered by Julie Dricoll, Brian Auger & the Trinity)
6. Goin’ Up The Country (Henry Thomas original, as adapted by Canned Heat)
7. High Time (The Grateful Dead cover)
8. I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die Rag (Country Joe & the Fish cover)
9. Get Together (The Youngbloods original, as covered by Richie Havens)
10. Evil Ways (Santana cover)
11. If I Were a Carpenter (Tim Hardin cover)
12. Every Day People (Sly & the Family Stone cover)
13. Spinning Wheel (Blood, Sweat & Tears cover)
14. Darlin’ Be Home Soon (Lovin’ Spoonful cover)
15. Find the Cost of Freedom (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cover)
For our take on the 50 best covers performed at Woodstock, click here.