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At Woodstock '94, mud-soaked nostalgia

Waxing nostalgic for Woodstock '94 seems faintly ridiculous, nostalgia for a celebration of nostalgia, like looking back fondly on that time you and your buddies saw that really great Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band.

Unless you were there, of course.

Then you know that it was much more than that.

No, it wasn't the original, which was held 40 years ago. There can only be one first of anything. But if Woodstock '94 wasn't the seismic cultural event that the 1969 festival was - peace and music, all that - it was at the very least a fine concert in its own right.

And a hell of a lot of fun.

Immediately upon its announcement, the cries of "sellout!" were heard, loudly and often. How dare anyone try to make money off of something as sacred as Woodstock? These cries were made mostly by Baby Boomers looking for another grip to hang onto as youth slipped away.

Except that the original was, you know, a rock festival -- designed to make money, like any other business venture. Graham Nash, of Crosby, Stills & Nash, encapsulated the whole argument nicely. Told in the press tent at Woodstock '94 that Neil Young had accused them of selling out by playing this show, he replied, "(Forget) Neil. I don't see him playing for free."

The trick to enjoying the '94 festival - the trick to enjoying anything, really - was to live in the moment, not in the past. Organizers didn't make it easy, showing "Easy Rider" on a giant screen behind one of the stages. Occasionally, between acts, the loudspeakers would blare "Purple Haze" or some other Jimi Hendrix song, as if he were the patron saint of the first festival looking down on the throng below.

Understandable, if unfortunate.

There was a definite vibe there, especially early on, of younger people longing to be a part of something, an "event," even if that lofty status was earned by the original through spontaneous means, even if manufacturing such a thing is almost impossible. (It would also explain the New York press' insistence, at every briefing, on trying to get promoters to repeat the famous phrase from the first festival: "It's now a free concert." It wasn't, and they didn't.)

Granted, classic-rock radio wouldn't exist without this mentality, but using "All Along the Watchtower" as some sort of high-water mark that can never be equaled prevents you from being able to fully appreciate the brilliance of, say, Nine Inch Nails' mud-soaked performance, when Trent Reznor and his band finally just played, without the usual sheen of manufactured anger (and managed to be scarier still without it). Happily, by the time they hit the stage Saturday night, most everyone was enjoying Woodstock '94 as an experience in its own right, with comparisons becoming increasingly irrelevant. Could Metallica top Nine Inch Nails? Could Aerosmith top Metallica?

There were a couple of factors that allowed Woodstock '94 to creep out from under its predecessor's shadow, at least to some extent: music and mud.

The first is the most crucial, of course. Not every performance was great - you don't hear a lot of people talking about what a fantastic set Jackyl or Huffamoose played - but there were enough acts (and two stages) to choose from that you could either find something you liked or not have to wait long for it. And there were enough standouts, including Green Day, James, Sheryl Crow and Peter Gabriel, among many others, to keep everyone happy.

And while there were older artists there, most of them managed to sound current (Bob Dylan, in particular, who reworked a lot of his material, and Joe Cocker, one of the acts who performed at the original, sounding particularly vibrant on a Sunday morning).

Then there was the mud. Of course, to have mud, you first have to have rain, and there was plenty. It was a little unsettling at first, particularly if, like the bulk of the 350,000 or so people there, you were camped out in a now-soaked tent.

But eventually, once you made peace with the fact that you were going to be wet and walking around in mud up to your ankles (at least), there was a kind of rugged beauty to it. It made for a more communal experience - we're all soaked, so we might as well enjoy it - that would have been less pronounced on a hot, dry weekend.

And isn't a communal experience what Woodstock's supposed to be about?

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett. Read his blog at goodyblog.azcentral.com. For movie stories, trailers and more go to movies.azcentral.com. Twitter: goodyk.