BETHEL, NY—Considering my close proximity to Bethel, NY and my love for music, it’s puzzling that I haven’t driven there before now. Maybe it’s because, when it comes to concerts, I’d rather watch one in a smoky bar rather than on an open farm field at the sticky, humid peak of a New York summer. Regardless, perfectly located on a hallowed 2,000 acre campus, The Museum At Bethel Woods accomplished its goals of teaching me about Woodstock and showing me how, even decades later, it still matters as more than just another music fest.
Opened in 2006, with The Museum At Bethel Woods’ ribbon cutting in 2008, the center is a year-round venue, hosting everything from concerts to film viewings to weddings. With or without an event to attend, the museum is a time capsule experience worth the drive itself. A tidy, informative glimpse into the ‘60s conflict and the peace and love conviction of its younger generation, the museum’s exhibits put Woodstock in context for its visitors. Those who can devote at least two hours to a tour (I went through twice) are treated to everything from an explanation of why the original festival site fell through, to original posters, tickets and firsthand accounts of how the small town of Bethel, NY exploded from a population of 2,700 to 400,000 over three short days. Featuring plenty of interactive displays and short films, the museum is a hands-on experience for anyone curious about what Woodstock was all about or for those looking to relive their time spent at Yasgur’s Dairy Farm in the mud and sun of August, 1969. Be sure to allow time to stop at the museum’s theatre for a film featuring interviews with some of the performers and, before leaving, visit the last interactive video booth (tucked away to your left as you head toward the gift shop) to hear memories from those who made it to Woodstock and those who wish they had. Other exhibits not to be missed include a collection of Rolling Stone’s first 75 covers and a Woodstock photo collection by the magazine’s Baron Wolman, immortalizing everything from the festival’s daisy-crowned hippies to its seedier, hairy, peace-man underbelly full of overflowing dumpsters and a town woefully unprepared.
Of course, making a day of a trip to Bethel and catching a show is highly recommended, and not too tough to manage with the center’s impressive lineup of planned concerts and events. My visit included a concert by Heart, with Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience as openers and, in limited fashion, as co-encore performers for a set worthy of a Kennedy Center Honors performance (hey, wait a second…). A “tribute band” in every best sense of the term, Bonham’s band opened with a set full of energy and unparalleled reverence for Led Zeppelin. Obviously way more than a cover band Bonham’s outfit is, as he emotionally stated, a way to tell his father “how awesome and fantastic he was” and of thanking the audience for keeping Zeppelin’s music alive for current generations. Performing with love and admiration, Bonham and band gave as much as they received from the audience and expertly set the stage for Heart’s opener, “Barracuda.”
Playing songs from their earlier catalog, Heart gifted the audience with classics from albums that cemented their place in rock ‘n’ roll early on. Following their opener with “Heartless,” “What About Love” and “Magic Man,” Ann and Nancy Wilson brought the best the band had to offer and gave a performance that was vocally and musically elegant and flawless. Indisputably brilliant, Ann Wilson’s vocals soared on all songs, but especially on the band’s ‘80s ballad, “Alone,” where the music became a perfect, understated accompaniment to her power and talent as a lead vocalist. As if there’s any doubt that her sister also took a healthy swig from the family talent well, Nancy paid graceful homage to the venue’s folk history by performing an acoustic version of Elton John’s “I Need You To Turn To,” followed by Heart’s “These Dreams.” Nearing the close of Heart’s set, the group dedicated their rocker “Dear Old America” to a disabled vet in the audience, mentioning that it was also a song for their father who was “banged up in a few wars, but always came home.” With both bands joining forces for an encore consisting of Zeppelin classics and ending with “Stairway To Heaven” (complete with choir), the bands finished the show on a breathtaking note perfectly suited for such sacred ground, a fitting tribute not only to Led Zeppelin, but to what it means to make music that truly matters for today and tomorrow.