Graded on a Curve:
Joe Cocker,
Live At Woodstock

Remembering Joe Cocker, born on this day in 1944.Ed.

Joe Cocker, he of the spastic stage gesticulations and mouthful of gravel, was one of rock’s greatest interpreters of other peoples’ material. He didn’t cover your song, he Cockerized it with that impossibly expressive rasp of his, and once he’d Cockerized your song you never heard it the same way again. He did it live, twitching like he’d just grabbed hold of a live wire, at Woodstock in 1969, and again on 1970’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, and the amazing thing is not that he never inadvertently hurled himself off stage in mid-contortion, but that it took four decades (!) for his legendary Woodstock performance to finally be released as an LP.

How was such an oversight possible? Did the master recordings fall into the paws of a rapacious monkey who demanded an exorbitant number of bananas? I don’t know, but their availability, even if it took 40 years, has made the world a better place. 2009’s Live At Woodstock featured Joe Cocker with the Grease Band, who were backing him at the time, and together they create sparks.

Their arrangements are loose—too loose in some cases—but Cocker (who passed away in 2014) had one of the best blues and R&B voices of all time, and the Grease Band could cook, and the results are evident on such amazing tracks as the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a masterpiece of shifting dynamics, call and response, superb musicianship, and pure ecstasy. And over it all Cocker, expostulating, roaring, screaming—he goes right over the top, Joe does, and it’s enough to leave you enervated when it’s all over.

With the exception of the overly long (as in 12 minutes) “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” which I’ve always disliked and which suffers from a slow as molasses midsection of the sort that rendered many live cuts of the era unlistenable, Live At Woodstock is a great if flawed (more on which later) LP. From Cocker’s very loose interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” (he speeds up the tempo and tramples all over Dylan’s lugubrious original) to the great “Hitchcock Railway,” which features organ, guitar, cowbell, and a rambunctious rhythm that runs right off the tracks, Cocker and the Grease Band play it loose and funky, while on slower tracks like the great Dylan tune “I Shall be Released” Cocker demonstrates his ability to convey pain and loneliness. He does the same on the slow and soulful “Do I Still Figure in Your Life,” an obscurity that he breathes pure soul into.

Everybody knows “Feelin’ Alright,” and while this version verges on falling apart and certainly isn’t as good as the one on Mad Dogs & Englishmen it still gets down and dirty, and features that great chorus, which is one of the highlights of classic rock. As for “Let’s Go Get Stoned” it’s a righteous slice of the blooz, and while there isn’t a Woodstock-era human who doesn’t know the fantastic chorus, it’s on the verses that Cocker goes really wild, with the help of his Grease Band mates (including keyboardist Chris Stainton, who went on to play with the likes of The Who, Eric Clapton, and Ian Hunter, and guitarist Henry McCullough, who later joined that McCartney fellow in Wings). I could do without the “talking” portion of the tune, but hey, like I say it was the seventies, and nobody, it seemed, knew how to refrain from launching into annoying on-stage “we’re all brothers and sisters” rhetoric and just let their music do the talking.

I love “Something’s Coming On” because it’s a total rock’n’roll ruckus, with both Cocker and McCullough cutting loose, and it should be better known. As for the 9:23 “Something to Say,” which made its first studio appearance on Cocker’s third LP, it grew on me; it’s a slow number, too slow I thought at first, but it sucks you in, it does, even as it sounds like the wheels might fall off. And I swear he blows a raspberry, for no apparent reason, towards the end of it. As for the explosion at the end, when Cocker commences screaming, well the word catharsis hardly does it justice.

Just as he did with “Dear Landlord,” Cocker takes Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and does his best to render it unrecognizable. His take on the tune is lovely, both slower and more empathetic than Dylan’s, and once again demonstrates Cocker’s intuitive interpretative skills. Why, it even has a hard rock section embedded mid-song, which amazingly works.

As for the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” it remains the Woodstock number he is best remembered for, and that’s appropriate, because Cocker goes from being very much into control to totally letting it rip, with that voice of his that could tear a phone book in half. Insane is the word I’m looking for; Cocker goes mad, while the Grease Band is utterly in control, taking the song up and down and sideways while Cocker lets loose with a Wilson Pickett-quality scream before going gutbucket guttural and totally frantic.

Then the song quiets, Stainton’s organ repeats a lovely figure, and the whole thing builds and builds to a denouement that is as raucous as it is flat-out astounding. It’s a bravura performance, and while I’ve always been an Altamont rather than a Woodstock guy, I would have loved to have been at Yasgur’s Farm to hear Cocker and band tear it up.

The only problem with the LP is the Grease Band; they had their great moments but their playing was often sloppy, and I generally like sloppy. Some of the arrangements barely hang together, and songs like “Feelin’ Alright” and “Something to Say” suffer. But overall? This is one vital document that everyone should own. Cocker was at the height of his powers, a force of nature, and he shouts down the Afros in the audience and blows all that long hippie hair straight backwards. As for his voice, it had so much gravel in it he temporarily blinded every hippie in the first forty rows. He was practically biblical, in short, and you just gotta hear him to believe it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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