Talking Bethel ’94 with Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner
Much ado has been made about the coverage of this “lost” Woodstock of 1989, with one article citing it as the only other significant anniversary concert to happen on Yasgur’s Farm before this past weekend’s festivities at Bethel Woods.
But a little more research would have revealed the existence of another amazing concert that happened in White Lake on the same weekend Michael Lang had his Pepsi-sponsored 25th anniversary celebration at Winston Farm in Saugerties, NY. I know, because I was there with four of my good friends and some random crust punk we picked up along the way. Not sure if it ever had an official name, but it has since been called Bethel ’94 ever since, at least amongst me and my friends.
Watching the footage of the original Woodstock over the weekend, I’m reminded of leaving my beloved 1985 Ford Bronco II, so instrumental in getting us through the thick mud en route to the concert site, just randomly on the side of the road like they did in 1969. I remember seeing Melanie perform, and Richie Havens, who organized the event, headline the show 25 years after opening Woodstock. I saw Corky Laing and Leslie West play as Mountain with Noel Redding on bass. Arlo Guthrie was there, but I was too young and dumb to appreciate his greatness, opting to eat more free rice made by The Rainbow Family, which was actually pretty tasty by the way! I think Canned Heat was there, too. I don’t remember.
However, the big surprise of the weekend was the random appearance of Soul Asylum, The Jayhawks and Victoria Williams to the Bethel ’94 stage, where they played this short, sharp set of favorites from their catalogs at the time and split. I remember when Soul Asylum were on, I caught a glimpse of my 9th grade crush Debi Becker (and dear friend, who we lost in 2015), who was working stage crew, sitting on some amps next to none other than my all-time crush Winona Ryder–who was dating Dave Pirner at the time–and thought the Rainbow Family dropped a little mescaline in my rice.
But yes, it all happened, and to honor this sadly unspoken-about celebration of the 25th anniversary of Woodstock I called up Mr. Pirner on my birthday and asked him all about his part of this most forgotten part of Woodstock history.
VIDEO: Mountain with Noel Redding perform at Bethel ’94
How did all of you end up going to the Bethel site that weekend?
It was a pretty interesting time in my life, I guess. We were just in New York City hanging out with Victoria Williams and Marc Olson and a bunch of us who worked on that Sweet Relief benefit album as well as Victoria’s solo album Loose. So we were all just hanging out and bullshitting as people do, and we were all like, ‘We should just go up and play that thing in Bethel.’ At the time, me and Victoria had a mutual manager, so we kinda half-jokingly called him and said we wanted to go up and play the original Woodstock site on Saturday. It was literally the day before, and we all just happened to be in New York at the same time. And he was like, ‘Great! I’ll get you a car and drive you out there.’ And it was so cool to play it, man! It was so spontaneous and is a great memory for me. They were doing that other Woodstock in Saugerties, which was such a corporate, much-hyped thing, so this was a fun alternative.
We had gotten up there late Friday afternoon, and it was a hot mess then driving in. How was it coming in on that Saturday?
It was pretty crazy. We got in and we got out, in spite the traffic, however. It was nutty as far as we were concerned. Yet the fun part for me, though, the drive out there to the site. We had these two brothers with us—The Williams Brothers—who are just beautiful, beautiful singers. And I was just sitting in the back of the limo, and I had one twin on one side of me and one twin on the other side of me, and we were just singing harmonies the whole way up. And it was just beautiful. That part of it—rehearsing as we were driving up and things like that—was pretty special. But as far as being there, we didn’t stick around to see any of the other acts, we had to get in and get out, so I didn’t get to see the other music that was there. I think it had the car possibly getting stuck in the mud…
As a young fan of college radio and modern rock in 1994, it was a pretty great period , especially your scene which revolved around that Victoria Williams benefit album from 1993, Sweet Relief. So when Soul Asylum, The Jayhawks and Victoria all showed up at Bethel like this mini-Rolling Thunder Revue, it definitely made that festival an unforgettable experience for me…
Perhaps it’s some sort of lost moment in time, but if you look at all the people who are on that Sweet Relief record, a lot of them are my favorite artists. That’s a pretty unique group of musicians and bands which felt like we were right in the middle of something. It’s not like it was a fuckin’ grunge thing or a punk thing or a folk thing or a country thing. You had Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, The Waterboys, Maria McKee, fuckin’ Eddie Vedder and all these people who had one thing in common, and that was Victoria Williams, oddly enough. It was an interesting cross-section of music that marked a very significant moment for music in the 90s, from my perspective.
AUDIO: Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams (full album)
I gotta admit, it was pretty wild seeing Winona Ryder hanging out on the side of the stage during Soul Asylum’s performance at Bethel. Now that she’s back in action with Stranger Things and 25 years has passed, have you guys buried the hatchet at all?
Yeah, that’s usually an off-limits topic for me. But yeah, I talked to her recently for the first time in a long time and it was cool. And yeah, she was with me at the Woodstock thing. Actually, if we’re being honest, she was the reason why we left early.
Makes total sense. So what’s Soul Asylum up to for 2020?
We got about twenty-something songs recorded and we’re trying to whittle it down. But we’re working, which is nice.
In gearing up to speak with you, I broke out Let Your Dim Light Shine to listen to. I, personally, think it’s the best of the three Soul Asylum albums that came out on Columbia, and I look forward to celebrating its 25th anniversary next year. But I have been wondering if you guys have spoken with Legacy Recordings about maybe reissuing Grave Dancers Union, Dim and Candy From A Stranger at all? I’m sure there’s some pretty cool unreleased stuff in the vaults, like more live shows or something?
They’ll probably get around to it someday. We just did the box of all the Twin/Tone shit, and there’s only two records on A&M and you can’t make a box set outta that. But the Columbia trilogy—yeah, they got a bunch of extra tracks and live shows they recorded and everything, so hopefully that will happen in time. Or not. The Twin/Tone compilations were cool, and I enjoyed making them, so I hope we get to do the other stuff.
Even deluxe editions of Hang Time and …And The Horse They Rode In On would be welcome additions to this buyer’s market, I believe. Did you hear about the box set The Replacements have coming out for the 30th anniversary of Don’t Tell A Soul, featuring unreleased sessions recently found at Slim Dunlap’s house?
Yeah, I was thinking about Slim the other day. I gotta go visit him. It’s Minneapolis, man. It’s not that big of a city, so I have no excuse.
How’s he doing, man?
The same. If you ask Slim’s wife, she’ll always tell you, ‘The same!’ He’s been the same since he had the stroke. He’s stable, but just not improving. It would be so great if he could at least play the guitar again.
VIDEO: Bethel ’94 highlights