50th Anniversary Edition of the Monterey International Pop Festival takes music fans back to sacred ground
“You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,” sang the Grateful Dead in their classic song “The Wheel”. But there are times when re-visiting a historic occasion seems appropriate as a way of honoring seminal moments in rock history. The 50th anniversary of 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival is such an occasion. Monterey Pop was a key turning point for the rock counterculture’s impact on pop culture at large. The festival featured breakout performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Who, raising rock’s profile in the larger cultural scheme of things. There were also appearances by Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, boosting the aura of the San Francisco music scene and some say kicking off the fabled “Summer of Love”.
The 2017 lineup isn’t quite as star-studded as what was put together in 1967, but organizers have scored a coup by pulling in Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh to close out the weekend on what is the exact 50-year anniversary of the Dead’s performance at the original event. It becomes apparent upon entering the grounds however that the venue isn’t as large as historic accounts might suggest, meaning that keeping the event on a smaller scale is not only wise but necessary. The chance to revisit such a pivotal moment in rock history is enticing and it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Monterey with temperatures in the low 70s as curious music fans arrive on the scene of the historic Monterey County Fairgrounds. The temperate weather is a welcome oasis for Deadheads from Marin County, since the temperature in San Rafael (where Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band are based) has reached into triple digits.
The Monterey Pop Festival has long lived in a sort of fantasized lore for Gen-X music fans who weren’t even born yet in 1967, so there’s some level of cognitive dissonance upon entering the main stage area and seeing how small the field and surrounding stands seem. Historical data indicates the festival’s approved capacity was only 7,000, yet crowd estimates have ranged from 25,000-90,000 hanging out in and around the fairgrounds. The main stage area would be hard pressed to hold 10,000, so it’s tough to imagine 25,000-plus people on the premises. The fact that the career-making performances from Hendrix and Joplin occurred before such a smaller audience defies logic, save for the famous film by D.A. Pennebaker that brought Monterey Pop to many more.
Highlights from the movie can be viewed in one of the side attraction halls on the grounds, where a comfortable air-conditioned lounge has been set up. Watching Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire and then stepping back out into the fairgrounds makes one feel like a time traveler, and likewise for the Mamas and Papas singing “California Dreamin” or Ravi Shankar’s masterful sitar performance. There’s also a Morrison Hotel Gallery photo exhibit hall with an array of vintage photos from 1967. Outside on the grounds, there are installations featuring quotes from some of the current performers commenting on the legacy of the festival. A quote from the 77-year-old Lesh accompanies a picture of a youthful Jerry Garcia playing at the festival in 1967:
“I am very excited to be performing at the Monterey Fairgrounds again. This time with the Terrapin Family Band. Fifty years on, Monterey Pop remains the original from which all subsequent festivals grew. And it is truly an honor to be able to revisit that spirit with the fine young musicians in this band,” the pioneering counterculture rocker said.
It feels like an honor just to walk the grounds where such rock history took place, for there are few such venues from the ‘60s still in operation in 2017. The Hollywood Bowl is another case in point, where Lesh’s former bandmates in Dead & Company performed less than three weeks earlier and delivered a performance on June 1 that testified to how vibrant the power of the psychedelic rock scene that helped forge the ‘60s counterculture can still be. Monterey Pop organizers therefore earn kudos for giving music fans a chance to visit such a special place in music history. But why acts like indie-rock group Kurt Vile & The Violators and indie-folk band The Head & The Heart have been scheduled on this Sunday lineup around Gary Clark Jr. and before Phil Lesh is puzzling.
Saturday’s lineup had both Jackie Greene and the North Mississippi Allstars, both of whom have played with Lesh and would have seemed a better fit for the Sunday crowd that mostly seems to have been drawn to see Lesh on historic ground. Mr. Vile is not without his talents and his upcoming co-headlining fall tour with rising indie rock queen Courtney Barnett holds great promise. But his band’s mid-afternoon set falls a bit flat here. The lo-fi fuzzy guitars don’t sound bad and the tunes have a sort of Pavement meets Bob Dylan vibe that could be more impactful in the right context, but the band fails to generate much buzz here.
Gary Clark Jr. cranks things up a notch though, offering a heavy blues vibe that makes him the festival’s obvious stand-in for the Jimi Hendrix role. No guitar player would accept comparisons to Hendrix of course, but the Austin, Texas-based guitar slinger has carved out a well-earned reputation as one of the hottest blues rock guitarists in modern music. Hence he has accepted the task of delivering a Hendrix tune in honor of the occasion. Clark’s set isn’t quite as charged as the one he delivered before a much larger audience at Coachella last year, but he certainly gets the crowd engaged in a way that wasn’t happening during Vile’s set.
Clark seems to invoke the spirit of Hendrix on “When My Train Rolls In”, a deep blues tune that feels like a clear sonic descendant of Jimi’s “Hear My Train a Comin’”. The jam features Clark’s most blistering playing of the day as he delivers an extended solo that wins a big roar of approval from the audience. This sets the stage for a stellar jam on Jimi’s “Third Stone from the Sun” at the end of the set, where Clark’s arrangement mixes blues, grunge, and psychedelia for a fantastic sound that lights up the evening.
A surprise treat occurs during the break at the main stage when Animal Liberation Orchestra delivers an unannounced acoustic set at the small stage in the food court area. The Bay Area jam rockers kicked off the mainstage activity at high noon and deliver a bonus set here for the later travelers who weren’t able to make it down so early. Guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz and bassist Steve Adams have both become regulars at Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads club in San Rafael, and so they’ve become key players in helping to keep the Bay Area music scene thriving. They draw a number of the usual suspects here for an excellent bonus set.
The Head and the Heart have a pleasing indie folk rock sound, but the band seems out of place sandwiched between monster instrumentalists like Gary Clark and Phil Lesh. Their set is fairly well received, although like Vile’s set earlier, it largely fails to ignite much in the way of a reaction from the audience. A notable exception occurs though when none other than Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas (Sunday headliners of the original festival) comes out to join the band for a transcendent rendition of “California Dreamin’” that feels like magic.
Then at last it’s time for the climactic set of the day as Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band hit the stage shortly before 9:30 pm to close out the festival. The temperature has cooled significantly, but the band aims to heat things up by opening with “The Music Never Stopped”. The set is plagued by sound problems early on however, as lead guitarist Ross James is far too loud and piercing in the mix, drowning out guitarist Grahame Lesh (Phil’s 30-year-old son), drummer Alex Koford, keyboardist Jason Crosby and even Phil Lesh himself. Phil seems to notice this about halfway through the song when he stomps on a pedal that boosts his sound significantly.
Vocalist Nicki Bluhm—another Terrapin Crossroads regular who also played earlier in the day and sang “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in tribute to Jefferson Airplane—appears to help out on vocals and her voice sounds perfect, leading fans to wonder why the soundman still can’t fix the mix yet. The mix issues persist into “Help on the Way” and “Slipknot”, with drummer Alex Koford barely audible. This leads some to wonder if the Terrapin Family Band is experiencing the Grateful Dead curse of “always blowing the big ones” since this is one of the largest audiences they’ve ever played to.
Phil even referenced Monterey Pop in his 2005 biography Searching for the Sound as “the inauguration of the Grateful Dead tradition of always blowing the Big Ones”, as he didn’t feel the band played well amidst all the hoopla and in the wake of the Who’s incendiary set. But the Terrapin Family Band continues searching for the sound here, and they find it when they make a surprise segue into “Alligator” instead of the traditional “Franklin’s Tower”. James takes the vocal and his gritty voice fits the classic tune well, as the band pays tribute to the legendary Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (who authored the fan favorite that sat on the shelf from 1971 until 1999 when Lesh dusted it off at his comeback shows from the liver transplant that saved his life.)
Pigpen was a key force in getting the Grateful Dead off the ground, being the one that urged Garcia to form an electric band and being the group’s primary vocalist and showman in the early days. It’s therefore heartwarming to see Pigpen honored here as the band gets into a great groove and then nods to the Dead’s set from 1967 when “Alligator” segues into “Caution”, as it did 50 years ago. The band’s chemistry starts to ignite here and their sonic alchemy is soon showcased when they execute a masterful segue from one of Lesh’s signature tunes “Box of Rain” into Garcia’s bluesy power ballad “Wharf Rat”, with Koford delivering a deep vocal that reveals him to be an old soul beyond his years. The band then segues back into “Box of Rain”, with another seamless transition, a hallmark of Grateful Dead music at its finest.
James sings again on a slowed-down arrangement of “Like a Rolling Stone” that seems like a nod to the memorable version Hendrix played here in 1967. It doesn’t have the rocking groove like more up-tempo versions Lesh has played with other lineups, but the mellower tempo is closer to Jimi’s version and seems to fill the ballad slot in this set following a rocking “Jack Straw”. A powerful visit to “Terrapin Station” highlights the evening with Grahame Lesh on lead vocal, and there’s a truly endearing vibe here watching the younger Lesh lead the band through Garcia’s most epic song while Dad continues to drop bass bombs. The band steers the energy into a sizzling jam on “I Know You Rider” for a high-energy finale that has everyone dancing, leaving fans wondering how the 90 minute set flashed by so fast.
The 2017 Monterey Pop Festival had no chance of impacting American pop culture like the original, but staging the commemorative event helps keep a certain zeitgeist from the ‘60s going and America can use as much of that energy as it can get in the foul era of Donald Trump’s economic assault on the 99%. Lesh acknowledged the Grateful Dead’s music in such a way in his biography when he wrote: “The fervent belief we shared then [in the ‘60s], and that perseveres today, is that the energy liberated by this combination of music and ecstatic dancing is somehow making the world better, or at least holding the line against the depredations of entropy and ignorance…”
The fact that Lesh is still out there rocking to hold the line against such depredations here in 2017 is a testimony to his status as one of rock’s greatest shamanic practitioners, as well as to the timeless quality of Grateful Dead music as a beacon for counterculture resistance against the forces of old and evil. The spirit of 1967 lives on in this music, as does the resistance against a short-sighted culture based on greed and fear. The dream for a better world and a more sane society lives on as long as the music plays.