Almost 50 years ago, on a hillside in the Catskill Mountains, John Sebastian stood alone on stage, playing for a crowd estimated at more than 400,000. He joined the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills and Nash in being part of the legendary, historic Woodstock festival.
But that was then, and this is now.
At 72, Sebastian is still out there, one of a handful of Woodstock veterans still playing and touring. He performs almost 50 gigs a year, he says, as he will tonight, at Poor David's Pub on South Lamar.
"I like to cover as much material as I can from the course of my career," Sebastian says. "I try to cover some Lovin' Spoonful material" -- Sebastian co-founded the Lovin' Spoonful, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 -- "and at some point or another, I play 'Welcome Back,' " referring to the song he wrote and recorded for the 1970s hit sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter.
Sebastian has quite a background. Born in New York City, he grew up in Greenwich Village. He's the son of a dad known as a classical harmonica wizard and a mom who wrote radio programs. He's the godson of the late Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz, Lucy Ricardo's (Lucille Ball's) next-door neighbor on I Love Lucy. "Aunt Viv," he called the woman who died in 1970, about a year after the Woodstock festival.
Visitors to the Sebastian home included Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie, whom John remembers slept in a hallway. So, it's not so surprising that he emerged as a rising star in the Village folk scene, alongside Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Mississippi John Hurt, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and so many others.
As leader, chief singer and songwriter of the Lovin' Spoonful, he helped ignite the mid-1960s rock revolution. An American answer to the British Invasion, the Lovin' Spoonful recorded such Top 40 classics as "Do You Believe in Magic," "Daydream" and "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?"
"Welcome Back" emerged as a chart-topping solo record, buoyed by the ratings dynamo that was Welcome Back Kotter.
Welcome Back Kotter aired its final episode in 1979, almost 10 years after the Woodstock festival. Sebastian has never stopped performing. It's in his blood.
"Generally, I just try to feel my audience out," he says of a repertoire that is truly his own. "Remember, this is the bliss of being able to work with an audience and not have to turn around and say to the drummer, 'No, we're not doing that.' It offers tremendous freedom."
He is, however, inclined to take requests from the audience. He calls his concert "a little of everything."
Most of his 40 to 50 shows a year occur near the East Coast, "because we can drive." He and his wife live in Woodstock, N.Y., which was not, by the way, where the 1969 event took place. That occurred on a dairy farm in White Lake, N.Y. The show carried the Woodstock name because it was originally supposed to occur in the town of Woodstock.
"I also enjoy the few shows that end up being not on the East Coast," he says.
Live performance, he says, feeds "everything else." It transcends what he calls "the modern approach to intellectual property, which is code for, 'I don't get no money for my songs.' So, really, that's it. And if I couldn't do this, I would be starting to be in trouble, both financially and maybe physically too."
In other words, it feeds his soul. And at that point, Sebastian politely excused himself from the phone interview, "because, hey, man, I have a couple of eggs waiting for me."
PLAN YOUR LIFE
Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. at Poor David's Pub, 1313 S. Lamar. Tickets start at $45. Poordavidspub.com.
Here is a YouTube video of Sebastian performing at Woodstock in 1969: