Creedence Clearwater Revival are one of the most misunderstood bands in rock history, and it seems like they wanted it that way. Best known for catchy rock ‘n’ roll singles, sung by John Fogerty in a voice and accent somewhere between a bullfrog and Gomer Pyle despite being from San Francisco, their albums also included unexpected bursts of guitar noise and long, one-chord jams that prefigured Krautrock, and matched acts like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges for avant-gardism disguised as proletarian crudity.
Their self-titled 1968 debut opened with a trancelike, eerie cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins‘ “I Put a Spell on You” that began with a low rumble of bass feedback and a startlingly fierce machine-gun burst from Doug Clifford‘s drums, leading into a savagely primitive guitar solo from Fogerty. But it was their nearly nine-minute version of Dale Hawkins‘ rockabilly chestnut “Suzie Q” that made their name. The song fades in like it’s already been going on forever, Fogerty’s vocal is fed through a telephone speaker effect and sent to the far left speaker midway through, disembodied backing vocals moan like ghosts on a Lee Perry dub mix, and Clifford pounds out the beat without mercy as one guitar solo after another erupts like timed charges. It’s no wonder the band in Apocalypse Now is playing a cover of Creedence’s “Suzie Q” in the scene when a visit from three Playboy Playmates to a base turns into a riot.
The band’s second album, Bayou Country (one of three they’d release in 1969), was only 33 minutes long, but nearly half that time was taken up by the 8:35 “Graveyard Train” and the 7:40 “Keep On Chooglin'”, the latter a caveman-simple boogie they’d use as a set-closer, its foot-stomping groove the perfect platform for extended guitar and harmonica soloing. Even on the shorter tracks, though, their noisy side emerged; on “Penthouse Pauper,” Fogerty’s guitar is a shrill, sustained explosion of sparks and barbed wire. Their third and fourth albums, Green River and Willy and the Poor Boys, focused on short, uptempo songs, but by 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory, the last release of their classic era, they were getting weird again. It opened with the noisy, clattering, seven-minute “Ramble Tamble,” and ended with an 11-minute take on Marvin Gaye‘s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” that starts out straightforward, but at the three-minute mark it goes off-road, Fogerty embarking on a seemingly endless guitar solo as the other three stay locked into an almost motorik groove.
In August 1969, CCR were one of the nearly 40 bands to perform at the Woodstock festival in upstate New York, but until this year their set was mostly lost to history. John Fogerty had refused to allow the band to appear in the movie or on its soundtrack album, believing that they had delivered a subpar performance to an unreceptive audience. (They’d had to follow the Grateful Dead, who had played much longer than expected, forcing Creedence to take the stage after midnight.) Three songs appeared on 2009’s Woodstock 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm box set, but their full 11-song set has never been heard until now.
It’s a ferocious show, from Bill Graham‘s introduction to the dying notes of “Suzie Q,” 55 minutes later. Things start off a little rough; the band chops out the chords of “Born on the Bayou” like their guitars are literal axes. They’re locked-in, but there’s a crash-bang quality to the performance — Clifford is hammering out the beat, but bassist Stu Cook is wandering around like Black Sabbath‘s Geezer Butler — that makes it seem like the whole thing could come apart any second. When the song ends, Fogerty can be heard complaining off-mic that he can’t hear himself, but when he calls the band to attention with the opening guitar figure of “Green River,” they’re right there with him, and from then on it’s a red-hot show, the four men digging deep into their songs’ swampy, bluesy grooves. Some songs give them a little room to stretch out, like their cover of Wilson Pickett‘s “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do),” while others are delivered in no-nonsense, stripped-down fashion, like “Bad Moon Rising,” which is a full ten seconds shorter than its already minimal 2:22 studio version.
Toward the end of the set is when things get wild and hairy. The band slams through “I Put a Spell on You” with maximum guitar clang, Fogerty’s instrument sounding like it’s been retuned by Sonic Youth‘s Lee Ranaldo. His solo is almost unhinged in its savagery, and his brother Tom’s rhythm work is crucial, ratcheting up the intensity in a way no team of brothers would until Angus and Malcolm Young came rocketing out of Australia. That’s followed by a chant-along version of “The Night Time is the Right Time” that’s the exact middle ground between Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. But the set’s final third is where CCR go full-on avant-garde, tearing into their longtime set-closer, “Keep On Chooglin'”, for ten and a half staggering minutes. The lyrics are nonsense, but the boogie riff is as undeniable as a driverless steamroller heading downhill, and that’s before the maniacal harmonica solo, which leads to the noise-rock guitar solo, which eventually yields to the metal-stamping press that is that one-chord riff, pounding through the center of your skull until you can’t even remember what year it is or what planet you’re on, never mind how long you’ve been listening to this band lay waste to everything in sight. I love Sunn O))) and I love Fushitsusha, and I’ve seen both of them live, and this beats them both; this is the sound of the world ending. But they’re not even done after that. They come back for an encore, and it’s a nearly 11-minute version of “Suzie Q” that makes the studio recording sound like folk music. Cook’s bass solo sounds like he’s auditioning for Grand Funk Railroad, and Fogerty’s final clanging chords are pure Sonic Youth.
If you’re only familiar with Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s radio singles, Live at Woodstock will radically upend your perception of them. Even if you’ve heard all their albums, including the long weird jams, the raw power of this set will leave you with your jaw hanging open. In 1969, these guys were serious contenders for the title of America’s Greatest Rock Band, and there’s absolutely no reason a performance this monumental should have stayed in the vault as long as it did. Now that it’s out, it’s a must-hear.