Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was likely rock's greatest mass concert

The most consistent characteristic of rock festivals, generally, has been their inconsistency. When they are successful, the attendees romanticize them far above what the experience really was. On the other hand, when they go bad, critics brand them as the worst of what society can offer. For every Bonnaroo and Woodstock '69, there seem to be four or five like Altamont or all the Woodstock re-tries.

The grandfather of the modern festival was the Monterey International Pop Festival held in Monterey, Calif., in June 1967. In 1992, Rhino Records released a four-CD boxed set (cover art shown in photo) of the event that includes performances from 21 artists and more than 60 songs. Though the original Woodstock soundtrack usually gets the nod for best festival album, the Monterey performances are better and more diverse.

Several acts became stars because of their performances here. For Jimi Hendrix and The Who, this festival was their first important performance in America. For Otis Redding, after years of just missing the big time, his performance here finally gave him the success his exceptional talent deserved. Unfortunately, he died six months later in a plane crash. For Janis Joplin, the Port Arthur, Texas, outcast finally found a place where she belonged as singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Of all the performances represented here, it is Otis Redding's blistering set that is the best. I really wish I could have seen Redding in concert. Redding and Roy Orbison are the two best singers I have ever heard. A skilled Artisan created both their voices. Backed by Booker T. & the MGs, Redding's songs leap off the disc and kick the listener in the butt.

He has five songs on this compilation, including 'Respect.' Aretha Franklin had a big hit with the song, but few people remember that Redding wrote it. Also, he does his version of Sam Cooke's 'Shake.'

However, the best is 'Try a Little Tenderness.' Because of his trademark raspy vocals, folks nicknamed him 'Mr. Pitiful,' and he used that persona to the fullest on this song. Beginning quietly and gently, his voice guides the song as it slowly builds power. By the end, the music is exploding, and the crowd is going crazy. A truly memorable moment. Days later, while on vacation, he wrote the lyrics of his most well-known song '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.'

Though they had found success in England, the Jimi Hendrix Experience had yet to break through in America. The only footage people usually see of Hendrix at Monterey is when he sets his guitar on fire during the finale of 'Wild Thing.' By focusing on the flash, however, many listeners miss an electrifying set.

All of his major early songs are represented here. 'Purple Haze,' 'Foxey Lady,' 'Hey Joe,' 'Can You See Me,' and 'The Wind Cries Mary' are straight performances of the studio versions with little improvisation. His version of Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' is best remembered by me because he refers to Dylan's grandmother at least three times during the set. Your guess is as good as mine.

Like Hendrix, the Who played many of their major early songs though most folks at the festival had never heard them. To this point, their biggest hit in America had been 'Happy Jack,' which got to only number 24 on the singles chart. They played it, but the rest of the songs were an assault on the senses.

Opening with 'Substitute,' it becomes quickly obvious that they are playing way too loud for the sound system. Other songs include: 'Pictures of Lily,' 'Summertime Blues,' and 'A Quick One While He's Away.' The finale was 'My Generation,' which ended the set with smashed guitars, microphones, and drums. I wish I still had that type of energy.

There are many other acts in this collection including: Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, the Butterfield Blues Band, and the Steve Miller Band. If anything, there is too much material here. There is just way too much music to digest in even three or four listenings. However, that is a good problem to have.

This set is worth owning for the Redding and Hendrix performances alone. If this boxed set is too much, look for an album that was released in the early 1970s that had just the performances of those two. It provides an appetizer of the best of Monterey Pop.

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