A journey from ‘Small Towns’ to ‘Woodstock’
Another great ‘idea’ becomes an album by Jim Ratts and Runaway Express
It all begins with one acoustic guitar and the simple story of a teenager named Quincy.
From there, Celebrate Woodstock evolves into a multi-sensory theater of the mind as Quincy—and his generation—wander into upstate New York on a life-changing coming-of-age journey.
Quincy is not in Kansas anymore. And neither are 400,000 others.
“I’ve got to Woodstock,” the boy reasons with his old man, who is skeptical until the quick-on-his-feet teen manages to convince his father that Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane are the Artie Shaw and Dorsey Brothers of today. The wild-eyed kid will soon backpack into three days of peace, love and music at the unlikeliest of venues, a 600-acre-dairy-farm-turned-Aquarian-mecca.
The movie—err cinematic album—called Celebrate Woodstock is the newest conceptual work by Jim Ratts and Runaway Express. This time, Ratts’s penchant for ambitious sound collage borders on rock opera as a massive “breakfast in bed,” the infamous traffic jam and other Woodstock touchstones are told in song, often from the standpoint of the audience and a generation lost in space.
“Seventeen bucks for the weekend,” Runaway Express sings, as a sort of ‘60s Greek chorus.
Celebrate Woodstock is less a collection of songs than an interweaving period piece with singer-songwriter Ratts serving as narrator. The segue-filled CD is a medley of natural sound, dialogue, and, of course, the soundtrack of an era—songs like “Goin’ up the Country,” “Freedom,” and the Joni Mitchell ode that helped launch the Woodstock mythos.
Although reflective narration and the weight of history are heard throughout Celebrate Woodstock’s 80 minutes, a more personal, less omniscient account is told through the eyes of Quincy. Are the Stones going to show up? What about Dylan? He lives in Woodstock.
Amid those 12 original songs, Runaway Express serves as the house band for a generation “playing” the parts of many Woodstock acts, sometimes less literally, re-inventing the Who’s “My Generation” as a time-traveling look back at the craziness, from the semi-jaded standpoint of today’s aging boomers.
The album is not just about Woodstock per se. Antecedents like Jack Kerouac and 1950s rock and roll make cameos too. Ratts, a Buddy Holly super fan, uses the quirky—and oddly well received—performance by Sha Na Na as a clever flashback within a flashback. And when Ratts urges “Come On” to the tribe, he naturally evokes Eddie Cochran as much as Wavy Gravy, whose stage banter [“We must be in heaven, man”] is the basis for a new song called “Motherland.”
As a singer-songwriter, Ratts has an ear for history and larger-than-life ideas, but he also knows how to get personal, as evidenced by such earlier “concept albums” as his double-shot tribute to Holly and this year’s poignant Small Towns, which tells the story of rural America in musical chapters.
Although Ratts did not make it to Woodstock himself, he played his own role in music’s post-Woodstock country-rock period as a touring musician in the 1970s. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Sam Bush [the bluegrass chart hit “Howlin’ at the Moon”] and he has played and sung with members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, both John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson, yielding an MCA release by Wild Jimbos.
Celebrate Woodstock is affecting in its individualized account, but the CD is more than nostalgia as it places rock’s most famous music festival on a kind of timeless and universal level. Most important, Ratts manages to put the enduring idealism of Woodstock in a decidedly contemporary and thought-provoking context, without ever taking the fun out of the music.
How many other potential resources for a term paper can you dance to?
Celebrate Woodstock is a slice of heaven, man.