Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: 'Monterey International Pop Festival' Box Set

The culture loves to shove Woodstock down our throats, but for my money, there was no better sixties festival than the Monterey International Pop Festival. The only truly great artists who would perform at Woodstock but not make Monterey were Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and The Band. In exchange we got The Byrds and Otis Redding, whose performance cemented his legend as assuredly as The Who’s, Janis Joplin’s, and Jimi Hendrix’s cemented theirs. Staged at a time before endlessly wanking jams became compulsory, the best performances were pithier, punchier, and more genuinely exciting, reaching a crazed climax with The Who vs. Hendrix smash-off. We often forget that some boring crap from The Grateful Dead actually went down between those two literally incendiary sets because history has been kind enough to leave those hippies out of the documentation that is D.A. Pennebaker’s concert film Monterey Pop and an equally essential four-disc box set released in 1992. Sadly, Rhino Records’ Monterey International Pop Festival has been out of print for quite a while. Gladly, Salvo Records is getting it back in print, and for a nice price as a domestic release in the UK and as an import in the US.

The big difference is that the set has been shrunk down from LP-size to a CD-size, flip-top box. The discs are enclosed in mini-LP jackets, which I personally prefer to ugly old jewel cases. The booklet, with its fascinating oral history with contributions from numerous organizers and artists, is also included. I cannot confirm that the music has been remastered or upgraded in anyway. Considering the era’s primitive live-recording technology, it sounds pretty good, though some artists (The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding) sound better than others (everyone who wasn’t The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Otis Redding).

As the booklet states, not every group who was recorded agreed to have his or her music included on the 1992 box. Such refusers must include Laura Nyro, Simon & Garfunkel, and Buffalo Springfield, who all had performances that were captured on film. The same remains true of this reissue, which is unfortunate since all of the aforementioned artists made some good noise at the festival (and don’t listen to the much-repeated rap that Nyro embarrassed herself. One listen to her breath-stopping performance of “Poverty Train” on the Monterey Pop bonus DVD puts paid to that myth). As for what’s here, here’s a little breakdown of each disc:

Disc One: This disc has the most variety, with The Association comporting themselves very well for the token light-weight pop act, Lou Rawls proving that Otis wasn’t soul’s only break-out performer at the fest, and Big Brother and the Holding Company ripping the ceiling down for the disc’s best set. Performing the funky “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” Country Joe and the Fish are better represented here than they are in the film, which featured the atmospheric drivel “Section 43” instead. Eric Burdon and the Animals don’t fare as well, with their good, fiddle-driven cover of “Paint It Black” being passed over in favor of the embarrassing “San Franciscan Nights.” Canned Heat play some so-so white-guy blues, which brings us to the weakest disc in the set.

Disc Two: An overabundance of white-guy blues makes the first half of disc two kind of a drag. The worst offenders are The Butterfield Blues Band, who are represented by five boring tracks and followed by a few cuts by The Steve Miller Band and The Electric Flag that are only marginally more interesting. The disc gets legitimately interesting with Hugh Masekela’s “Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song),” which careens from discordant screams to a meditative jazz sigh. Then we get a full set from The Byrds, whose playing and singing is unbelievably sloppy but bring a bit of much-needed garage band chutzpah to the disc. Plus, David Crosby’s between-songs hippie rants are fucking hilarious. Finally there’s a Ravi Shankar raga edited down to a mere six minutes and a loooong but relatively lively jam from The Blues Project that veers closer to Motown soul than the dull, white blues that began the disc. Diagnosis: needs less Butterfield, more Shankar.

Disc Three: So much for the hit-and-miss quality of the first two discs. This is the unadulterated gem in the bunch with monumental sets from Jefferson Airplane, Booker T. & The MG’s, Otis Redding, and The Who. No complaints here, just committed performances from three of the era’s greatest stage acts. Getting to hear The Who perform a rare live performance of “Pictures of Lily” is a particular treat, and hearing a tech trying to get the mic working after they smash the place to pieces at the end of their set is the uproarious icing on the cake.

Disc Four: This is the most schizo-disc in the set, split between just two groups, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Mamas & The Papas couldn’t be more different. Hendrix’s set needs no talking up from me. He transformed “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Wild Thing” into aural Star Destroyers. He fucked his amp and set his guitar on fire. He dressed like Clarabell the Clown and spewed a stream of psychedelic nonsense between songs. Awesome. After him, the pleasant pop of The Mamas & The Papas could only be anticlimactic, and the group is further hindered by a bass player who apparently never heard any of their songs before. But despite a lack of rehearsal, they still put on a good show, bringing three nights of electric lunacy to a pleasingly mellow conclusion.
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