Ten Years After’s Ric Lee Talks Surviving Woodstock on 50th Anniversary


The inaugural Woodstock Music and Art Fair will be understandably top of mind when Ten Years After returns to the U.S. in August.

The group — whose lengthy version of "I'm Going Home" was immortalized in triptych screen during the 1970 Woodstock documentary — will play a Woodstock Experience show during its nine-date run, which also includes a stop at the Iridium in New York on Aug. 25. The last part of the show recreates TYA's six-song set from Woodstock, with current guitarist Marcus Bonfanti recreating the late Alvin Lee's epic solos.

Drummer Ric Lee, who remains from the original lineup along with keyboardist Chick Churchill, remembers Woodstock fondly in his new memoir, From Headstocks to Woodstock. And as the group prepares to go back to the garden — with a planned U.S. release for its 2018 album, A Sting In the Tale, later this fall — Lee spoke with Billboard about memories of mud, music and getting in and out of Woodstock alive.

If I remember right we didn't actually know about (Woodstock) until we were on tour at the time. We were doing the Newport Festival (package) on the road and we were with Nina Simone in St. Louie the night before (Woodstock). All along our manager had been saying to Frank Barsalona, our agent, "No, the money's not good enough. We're not gonna do it." And then, as momentum built up through the press and TV and all the people coming from around the world Barsalona finally phoned him and said, "Look, I think you're crazy if you don't sign and do this. Janis has just signed. Jimi Hendrix is signed. The Doors are doing it, the Airplane, the Who," whoever else. He said, "You'd be crazy not to do it."

And at that time they were talking about it maybe being 50,000 people, which was no bigger than we'd done at the Seattle Pop Festival earlier in the year, so Woodstock didn't seem that big at the time — but of course, as you well know, it grew to monstrous proportions. It was in the papers every day by then. It was on television. There were people stirring up stories about how there was going to be a riot, it's gonna be a mess — this, that and the other. We started to get an idea of the momentum of the thing.

The first time we really got a sense of the enormity was when we flew in by helicopter, 'cause you couldn't get within six miles of the place since everybody had just dumped their cars on the side of the road and you couldn't get through. We'd left St. Louis at six that morning and had not really had that much sleep. We arrived at a Holiday Inn, which was like Tranquility Base, and all the rooms were taken so we ended up sharing with Big Brother & the Holding Company and there was nowhere to sort of lie down and get a decent kip. And the next thing was Dee Anthony, who was acting as our American manager at the time, said, "Come on, you've got to get to the festival. They want you. You're supposed to be on in an hour's time." So we went to get in the limousines that brought us from New York and he said, "Nah, you can't get in by road. You've got to go in by helicopter."

So we got to the helipad and there were four blokes there, one of whom was Albert Grossman, I believe, and the others were from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and they pinched our helicopter. I was gonna make a fuss about it but Dee said, "Nah, leave it. There's be another one along in a minute." So we got on the chopper and flew in with a medic who said, "Whatever you do, don't eat anything that's not been cooked and don't drink anything that's not out of a sealed can, 'cause we’ve got hepatitis breaking out and it could well be an epidemic and we're trying to control it." And as he was saying that we were flying over this massive crowd. It was a fantastic sight, of course, and that's when I realized the enormity of what was going on.

I spent most of my time backstage. We were supposed to go on in the afternoon (Sunday, Aug. 17) but because of the storm and one thing or another it wasn't until (8:30) at night. I spent most of my time backstage — I was trying to find something to eat. I hadn't eaten since about 7 o'clock that morning on the plane. And trying to get a drink as well but that was impossible 'cause all the power had been knocked out by the storm so there was nothing cooking backstage at all. And I never found any cans that weren't already open. I was never a dope head; I was always a drinker, and at Woodstock I was drinking beer. A lot of people were wandering around quite stoned, but they were all having a good time. I sat onstage and watched the (Joe) Cocker set when I first arrived, and that was fantastic watching Joe doing all those classic tunes with the Grease Band. I saw Country Joe, of course and Johnny Winter — they both snuck on before us. Country Joe actually said they'd played the Fillmore East with us before Woodstock and he'd never follow us 'cause we drained the audience, which was a nice compliment.

When we got on stage there was still a heck of a lot of moisture left from the storm, so the atmospherics were causing the guitars to go out of tune and we had to start "Good Morning, Little School Girl" four times. We'd get just through the intro and Alvin would say, "Nah, we need to tune up again," which is OK if you're in a small club or an auditorium, but if you're in front of 300-500,000 people, which is the biggest crowd we've ever played to, it was a little unnerving. But the people were very patient. We finally got the guitars to stay in tune and carried on, but the set was pretty nerve-racking. I mean, we played a lot of gigs, but that was something special and, as I say, quite unnerving.

After the film came out the next year Alvin and I both thought it would be different if there'd been two songs, and one of them had been "I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes," maybe. The band was a lot jazzier in those days; We'd come out of the '40s and '50s and were doing swing blues and jazzy sort of stuff. But because it was only "Going Home" in (the film), which was basically just a rock n' roll number, it gave people a different view of the band. What it did do, of course, was put us on the world stage; That's when we started to play places like Madison Square Garden, the Forum in L.A., the Budokan in Japan, Royal Albert Hall in London. It jumped us up there in front of everybody, so you can't complain too much.

The major thing about Woodstock, I think, is what it said on the poster. It WAS peace, love and music for three days — and more, in fact, because some of those people were there before the three days started, and afterwards as well. The model was there through which we could live our lives in the world and make the world a much better, more peaceful place. (Woodstock) was a template for it. There was a model there for how people treated each other. Sandwiches were dropped in at one point and if you didn't have any or somebody hadn't managed to catch one and was hungry they were tearing up the sandwiches and giving each other something to eat, and similarly with the water going around. There was a lot of love, really — a lot of love, and it'd be a great template by which to live our lives today. Especially today, you know?

Ten Years After's upcoming U.S. tour dates include…

Aug. 11 — Woodstock Experience, West Jefferson, N.C.

Aug. 12 — 5 Points Music Sanctuary, Roanoke, Va.

Aug. 14 — Rams Head Onstage, Annapolis, Md.

Aug. 16 — Space Coast Harley-Davidson, Palm Bay, Fla.

Aug. 18 — Au-Rene Theater, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Aug. 21 — Sellersville Theater, Sellersville, Pa.

Aug. 22 — My Father's Place, Rosslyn, N.Y.

Aug. 25 — Iridium Jazz Club, New York

Aug. 30 — Teatro Ferrocarrilero Gudello Morales, Mexico City