MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA — The final day of the 50th anniversary of the historic Monterey Pop Festival kicked off under warm sunshine to the melodic jams of Northern California’s Animal Liberation Orchestra. A guest appearance from Jack Johnson only sweetened the mood. He playfully said of his longtime pals while plugging in, “I’ve been trying to join this band for years, at least they let me play a song with them once in a while.”
The collaborations continued with Nicki Bluhm fronting The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, including a tribute to The Jefferson Airplane with Bluhm rocking the dramatic phrases of “White Rabbit” and included a fun, flirty cover of Blue Lu Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg” with Gregory Davis, trumpet player and frontman of the famed New Orleans second-line band.
One of the highlights of the festival followed as Booker T Jones and his Stax Revue put on a stellar performance featuring hits from the MG’s catalog and tributes to Otis Redding sung by a trio of vocalists. Jones’ own son Ted was alongside on guitar as Jones proudly presided as keyboardist and conductor down a musical memory lane.
Regrettably, the great energy created on the packed fairgrounds arena floor couldn’t be sustained by Kurt Vile and The Violators, who fell flat and seemed out of place in this slot which frankly would have been perfectly suited to the day’s opener, Animal Liberation Orchestra. The good news is that people took the opportunity to rest on their blankets, get some nourishment, and complete some festival maintenance before Gary Clark Jr. strolled on stage for a scorching and mesmerizing set in the golden hour of the afternoon. Clark Jr. was in full command, firing off rock and blues guitar licks and vocals to match his firm gaze upon the spectators, many of whom had remained just for his show before starting a Sunday journey home.
Those that remained were treated not only to a solid outing by pop-rock outfit The Head and The Heart, which was eagerly supported by the under 30 attendees (and even more so the under 20 set). Their cover of The Mamas and The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and a touching guest appearance by Michelle Phillips earned them some cred with the more seasoned fans, as well. Phil Lesh and The Terrapin Family Band then appeared as the 24th and final act to grace the stage, peeling off Grateful Dead classics to the faithful who made it all the way to a Sunday witching hour.
Monterey Pop 50 likely bore little resemblance to the original, but then how could it? What transpired in 1967 was largely serendipitous rather than choreographed in part because the people were experiencing much of the music they enjoyed for the very first time. Jimi Hendrix was unknown, Ravi Shankar even more so given that his sitar tunings actually brought applause because the crowd didn’t realize that’s what it was, and Otis Redding had really only appeared before in soul and R&B venues. Today, we can peruse any genre of music and their video accompaniments on the web at any moment.
Sure, there was plenty of neru, corduroy, and flowers, accented in peace signs and bandanas, but in 2017 that’s more costume party than lifestyle. There was an abundance of weed in the air (can you imagine if you’d told people in ‘67 that it would be legal the next time this event was held? I’ll confess it just occurred to me to ask) but probably not near as much acid dropped by comparison. Checking with the Rock Med folks revealed they were much more occupied with dehydrated concertgoers from three perfect sunny days than anyone needing to re-center themselves in a “Trip-Tent” like Dennis Hopper and others did back in the day.
The first day of the festival was filled with nostalgia, memories, and sharing stories and impressions of the original with the people on the blanket next door. As the weekend progressed, it morphed into just another festival, albeit smaller and with enough marketing power to remind one that something cool happened there with a couple of interesting photographic and memorabilia museums. Save for a couple hours of crushing crowds near the front of the stage Saturday evening, overall it was a very relaxed vibe both inside and outside the venue.
The music world, with its lawyers and brand protectors have become the business, which was evidenced in part by the acts that participated and notably, who didn’t, but perhaps only having a few returnees was by design to avoid comparisons. What was similar was that the acts were across a fairly broad range of styles. The cover tributes and reverence the majority of artists displayed showed an appreciation of the privilege in sharing that historic stage. Most, it seemed, also were aware how important 1967 was to the careers they enjoy today and the opportunity in the summer season to be exposed to new fans at festivals not only all over the country, but around the world. Political messages were nearly non-existent, but imploring all to love one another regardless of what’s happening was central.
The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was cobbled together almost on the fly in six weeks by its organizers in the hope it might act as a vehicle to establish rock genre credibility. It stands on its own as a founding father in rock music festival history. Hopefully, the Monterey County Fairgrounds continues its legacy as a rock music destination.