The seating capacity at the Cultural Arts Center at Montgomery College Silver Spring is 500, a far cry from the crowd that squeezed onto Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in August 1969 — “half a million strong,” as Joni Mitchell put it in her hippie anthem, “Woodstock.”
WOWD Takoma Radio host and Program Director Steve Hoffman and Congressman Jamie Raskin emcee the event at 7:30 Saturday evening featuring six performers — Lilo Gonzalez and the DC Labor Chorus, Brooke Parkhurst and Rowan Corbett of Tinsmith, Downwire: Roger Coleman and friends, Chris Noyes, Kentavius Jones and Walter Parks — will take the stage to recreate some of the highlights of perhaps the most memorable concert ever in “Back to the Garden: A Tribute to Woodstock.”
Fifty years after the original three-day “Aquarian Exposition” of peace, love and music, Woodstock will be celebrated with a family-friendly concert featuring folk, rock and world music, and everyone’s invited — even if, like Eastern Shore musician Chris Noyes, you weren’t allowed anywhere near the original Woodstock.
“I remember being fascinated by the event,” said Noyes, 59, who grew up in Baltimore County. “If I were 10 years older, I would have made an effort to be there. I often thought, even as a youngster, that I was born in the wrong decade.”
In her childhood memories, Woodstock is “a big, giant ray of sunshine” that dispelled the gloom of the Vietnam War and gave Noyes hope during what she calls “a dark and scary time.” “I remember my mother hiding copies of Life magazine after Woodstock,” she said, “because she didn’t want us seeing pictures of ‘naked hippies.’”
And while a few “naked hippies” may seem absolutely innocent circa 2019, Woodstock turned out to be the kickoff to a revolution that eventually ended a war, deposed a corrupt president and brought a golden age of music to the masses.
“The music influenced me heavily,” Noyes said. A longtime music teacher and performer, she has toured with the Crab Alley Band, recorded with the Ocean Quartet and the Ocean Orchestra and enjoyed a solo career that includes the CD “Mirrorstones.” Most recently, she performed with some of the “Back to the Garden” headliners at a concert in Oxford, Maryland. That event, like the 50th anniversary celebration itself, was the brainchild of arts advocate extraordinaire Busy Graham, whose Carpe Diem Arts, along with Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, is presenting the event.
“It was an amazing, magical, electric performance, and I can’t wait to recreate it,” Noyes said. “I’m really looking forward to the experience again.”
Her set will include two songs written by female musicians, songs that were not performed at Woodstock, but have come to embody its message. “Joni Mitchell didn’t actually attend,” she explained, referencing the concert’s eponymous anthem. “But she did write about the experience, not intending it to be an iconic song in any way — just a song to commemorate the event. So I’ll be singing that, and another song that I really, really love: ‘Candles of Rain’ by Melanie Safka.”
Safka, better known as the pop-folk star ‘Melanie,’ wrote “Candles of Rain” (or “Lay Down” as it’s popularly known) after the 1969 concert, where she performed at age 22. It’s just one of a slate of beloved songs on this concert’s program.
“Any time you get musicians covering great music and bringing their heart and soul to it, you’re transporting the audience back to that time with a contemporary twist,” Noyes observed. “The material is great; we’re just bringing our own interpretation to it.”
For Walter Parks, that means adding a little firsthand knowledge of the material. Parks wasn’t at the original Woodstock, but for 10 years, he played guitar with Richie Havens, one of the festival’s breakout stars.
“I was just too young, 11, and I missed it,” said Parks. “But when the movie came out, and the songbook came out, I was on it.” He saw the Academy Award-winning 1970 documentary the first day it hit the theaters. “And, of course, when Richie Havens came on the screen, I was like, ‘Who is that crazy guy?’ He looks like an African king, and he sounds like the whole world, and I thought, ‘This guy is the best performer I’ve ever seen!’
“Then fast forward 35 years, and I’m playing with him!” They grew close over the years, rehearsing in Jersey City, where Parks still lives, and performing around the globe. “I couldn’t have had a better teacher than Richie, in terms of watching somebody be completely natural. He was not a ‘school-learned’ musician, but Richie was really good at doing what came natural to him.”
As a kid, Parks dreamed about playing in stadiums around the world, and those dreams started coming true when he played his first concert with Havens at Madison Square Garden. Now he tours as a solo artist, reaching back to his roots to create his signature sound after Havens passed away in 2013.
“I grew up in North Florida, and the music that inspired me is not exactly country: it’s ‘swampy,’” Parks said. “It’s got a Southern rock groove with a little bit of funk.” Growing up, he added, “My favorite music was R&B, soul and gospel music. Stylistically, those are the influences, but it’s kind of a mix of electric folk, jazz and blues-rock.”
What Parks loves about Woodstock — and strives to replicate in his own repertoire — is its wildly eclectic nature. “It was an anything-goes kind of festival,” he said. “There was Ravi Shankar next to Santana next to The Who next to The Grateful Dead, and then Richie Havens. The programming skipped around.”
As will the 2019 version. Parks plans to mix some original songs with his favorites from Woodstock: Havens, of course; Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Canned Heat and Joe Cocker. He’s hoping that “Back to the Garden,” which will include audience sing-alongs to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as well as other anthems of peace and unity, will recreate that famous Woodstock magic. “Right from the jump, it was bigger than they thought it was gonna be,” he said. “It just grew beyond their expectation.”
Grew and spread around the world. For Lilo Gonzalez, Woodstock was an event that reached out and inspired him as a teenager in rural El Salvador. “At that time, I was playing guitar with my friends,” said Gonzalez, 62. “I remember it was a big event for us, and when the movie came out, I was listening to all the songs: Joe Cocker, Santana, Jimi Hendrix. We were young, with long hair, and I loved the shirts — tie-dyed? — with all the colors, you know? We were so poor, and I remember wanting a shirt like that, with those beautiful colors.”
He also wanted to play the songs on his guitar, like “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and Gonzalez will have that opportunity at the Silver Spring Woodstock concert. Now a Takoma Park resident, he is a musician as well as a teacher, known for his prize-winning songs about the struggles of immigrants.
“In my country, I was an elementary school teacher,” Gonzalez said, explaining that after emigrating in the wake of civil war, he struggled at first. Working with at-risk youth and children led to a job teaching music at D.C.’s The Lowell School; eventually he placed second in the Billboard and OTI songwriting contests and won five WAMMIEs. “Now, I do my music for grownups and for little ones.”
Throughout his career, the ideals and principles of Woodstock have dovetailed neatly with his own. And at the concert in Silver Spring, he’ll play for the immigrants, the unions and the Dreamers, carrying forward the messages that reached him in El Salvador 50 years ago. “We saw ‘peace and love’ on the signs, and that was very powerful,” he said. “It was very important to us.”
What’s important to Kentavius Jones? The 37-year-old Easton, Maryland native teaches sixth grade at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge when he’s not performing as a singer-songwriter and guitarist. “I was not even born when Woodstock happened,” he affirmed, noting that he was a late bloomer as far as music is concerned, and probably didn’t even hear about the original concert until he was in college. “My knowledge base about music, singer-songwriters, came later in life.”
Growing up, Jones was a church-going, lacrosse-playing scholar with an eye on politics who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in history from Washington College in Chestertown. “Athletics and extracurriculars; clubs and sports,” he said. “I was highly involved with student government. I loved the study of history and politics.”
But Jones, whose dad was a DJ, discovered the guitar at the end of his senior year of high school. “I had always loved music in an organic way,” he said. “It was always around. I grew up in the church, with gospel music, and black music, R&B and soul. And when I picked up an instrument to replicate it, to create it, well, it made sense.”
Coming late to Woodstock, Jones can easily point to the artist he calls “my capstone”: Jimi Hendrix. “When I get into something, I study it, I research it,” he explained. “He was the hook that reeled me in; the rest is just my fascination with the aesthetic and the art.”
So, will Jones be looking to replicate Hendrix’s performance when he joins the “Back to the Garden” lineup? Not exactly. “I think that with greatness — with people who do things on such a level — it’s lightning in a bottle,” he observed. “You cannot replicate that. But what you can do is be as original inside of that thing, that interpretation.
“You must pay homage, be of the caliber of the artist: ‘What would Richie Havens think of my rendition of his song?’”
The goal, he added, will be to “achieve a nod” from the original performers. “I’m doing my own thing, the only thing I can do,” he added. And because he is a student (and a teacher) of history, Jones takes Woodstock beyond the music. “I look at that period of Woodstock as a time when we looked at all these wars, all this violence — and for what? It was a realization: ‘Man, this is not good, and it’s not what’s best for us. We should try something different.’
“Woodstock embodied what was best for us, a better way,” said Jones. “Peace and love are a better way forward.”
A Celebration of Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary takes begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Cultural Arts Center at Montgomery College, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Tickets are $20, $10 for students and children, $5 for Montgomery College students. Visit http://mcblogs.montgomerycollege.edu/cac.