Monterey Pop Festival 2017—Day One Review

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When I was 15 years old, I went down to the Turtle Bay Theater in Manhattan and saw Monterey Pop, the first and, as it turns out, best rock festival concert film ever made. Watching the incredible performances from the most amazing array of artists—from Ravi Shankar to The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Eric Burdon (see below) and particularly Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, whose heart-wrenching performance of “Ball and Chain” never fails to send chills down my spine every time I see it—I was an instant convert. I wished I had been at the festival, but even more, I wanted to go to the next one. Fifty years later I finally got my chance.

I don’t know why it took five decades to get around to another edition of the festival. Since the original, we’ve had Woodstock (with two semi-disastrous revivals of its own), Altamont, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and countless other festivals, but none combined the relatively small size and density of extraordinary talent, both onstage and in the audience, that the original Monterey had.

When I heard that Lou Adler, the impresario behind the first Monterey International Pop Festival, was teaming with Golden Voice to create a 50th anniversary celebration of the Monterey International Pop Festival, I knew I had to be there. The fest was even going to feature at least three acts that had played at the first one, as well as an eclectic lineup of modern musicians in the tradition of those ’60s giants. Some, including Norah Jones, Jack Johnson and Gary Clark Jr., I knew quite well; others I had either never heard or never heard of.

Read our review of day two of the 2017 Monterey Pop Festival

Held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, which also hosted the original, this 2017 version is taking place in a completely different world. In 1967 we were still living in a country with only three big TV networks; local Top 40 radio stations ruled the airwaves, and most of the bands playing the festival had yet to make it big. The festival became the launching pad for some of the biggest names in what we now call classic rock, but back then it was still a small underground phenomenon. Today, with the internet and streaming music services, and the lack of a unified musical culture, it’s tough for any new band to hit the big time.

Read our review of day three of Monterey Pop 2017

Unlike most festivals nowadays, which feature multiple performances simultaneously on different stages, the 50th anniversary Monterey festival kept to the single stage format of the original, so you didn’t have to make painful choices about who to see and who to miss. The tightly packed schedule meant that sets were short and tight, and encores were verboten. Another aspect retained from the original were the craft booths selling jewelry and trinkets, tie-dye clothing and vinyl records. An on-site pop-up Morrison Hotel gallery featured memorabilia and high-quality prints of photos shot at the original festival, as well as other classic rock pix. A massage tent, a corporate-sponsored hippie how-to craft activities area, and relatively upscale food booths reflected both the ’60s heritage and the modern age.

Related: 10 killer performances from the 1967 fest

With the fabulously sunny Monterey climate keeping temperatures in the 70s, the first day of the festival kicked off at noon on Friday with a solo performance by Sara Watkins, playing to a sparse crowd still entering the grounds. The former Nickel Creek and Decemberists member was raised on bluegrass, but her solo songs were more folky, singer-songwriter fare. She accompanied her crystalline soprano with fine playing on ukulele, fiddle and guitar. In a tribute to her bluegrass roots, she covered a song by ’60s folk and bluegrass legend John Hartford. The audience at that hour was still pretty sparse, given the fact that it was still early on a weekday, but those who were lucky enough to be there responded enthusiastically to Watkins’ performance.

Langhorne Slim works the crowd at the 2017 Monterey Pop Festival (Photo by Alexis Moore)

Next up was Langhorne Slim and the Law. Slim obviously had the historical perspective of the legendary breakthrough performances at the original Monterey festival in mind when he took the stage. He started off with a solo acoustic performance of a song he wrote the day after last year’s election. He then called for the fairly dispersed crowd to come gather around the foot of the stage and brought out his band the Law. By the third song he had decided to go for his big Monterey moment and abandoned the stage to jump into the audience, embracing people in the crowd while singing passionately. Before he left the stage, Slim revealed something that Watkins seemed to have missed. During a spirited rendition of Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” he informed the audience that the promoters had asked each of the bands to perform a cover of a song by an artist who had appeared at the original festival.

Charles Bradley at the 2017 Monterey Pop Festival (Photo by Alexis Moore)

If you look at the bands booked for the festival and try to figure out who their ’60s counterpart was, my guess is that the next act would be filling the Otis Redding slot. Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires are one of the best examples of the classic soul band performing today. From the same Daptone Records soul revival stable that spawned the late, great Sharon Jones, Bradley leans more toward James Brown’s percussive, funky sound than Redding’s Southern soul, but he nonetheless has down every classic soul move, from the wailing screams, cries and shouts to the choreographed knee drops, mic stand grabs and jacket shedding. Bradley is the real deal and, having recently undergone chemotherapy and beating stomach cancer, he moved like a man half his age. It was only appropriate that Bradley chose to perform a heart-wrenching medley of Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember” and “Pain in My Heart” as his classic Monterey fest cover.

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats at the 2017 Monterey Pop Festival (Photo by Alexis Moore)

The next band, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, has Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra period down pat, with elements of Sam Cooke and gospel thrown into the mix for good measure.  They chose Janis Joplin’s version of Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart” as their Monterey cover and while it was brave for Rateliff to sing it with the song’s original gender references intact, it was a less than believable effort.

Watch Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats perform “Piece of My Heart”

Eric Burdon at the 2017 Monterey Pop Festival (Photo by Vinnie Longobardo)

Finally, it was time for the first of the artists who had performed at the original festival to make his appearance. Introduced by his contemporary, former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, Eric Burdon, veteran of the British Invasion, appeared with a six-piece version of the Animals, all at most a third of the elder rocker’s age, and complete with a horn section. Kicking off with a furious version of the Animals classic “Don’t Bring Me Down,” he quickly segued into the now very appropriate “When I Was Young” before performing “Monterey,” the hit he wrote about the original festival in 1967.

Eric Burdon at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967 (Photo from the Monterey International Pop Festival website)

A cover of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” a song he recorded back in the ’60s, was followed by Burdon’s cover of what he called one of the best protest songs ever written, “For What it’s Worth,” written by Stephen Stills of fellow original festival performers the Buffalo Springfield. Next up was an old traditional blues, “In the Pines,” followed by the song the whole crowd had been waiting for, the Animals’ first and biggest hit, “House of the Rising Sun,” sung in a jazzier improvisational style than the original. Another Animals hit, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” followed, including a clever vocal/guitar interpolation of Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” in the middle. Closing with the old Sam and Dave number “Hold On, I’m Coming,” Burdon left the audience wanting to hear even more of his Animals and solo catalog.

Related: Eric Burdon’s love song to the original Monterey festival

After Burdon’s hard-rocking set, a Steinway piano appeared on the stage and Regina Spektor’s mellow solo set started. If you continue the conceit of pegging acts to their 1967 counterparts, Spektor would probably fit the Laura Nyro slot. But unlike Nyro’s R&B-rooted pop, Spektor’s classically trained piano, cabaret influences and politically informed lyrics put her more in the mode of Blue-era Joni Mitchell. Switching to guitar after a couple of songs, and then back to piano for the rest of the set, she performed songs from throughout her 15-year career. She too failed to cover any songs from the original festival, and even skipped playing her most well known song, “You’ve Got Time,” the theme from Orange Is the New Black.

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By the time Spektor finished, daylight was fading, and former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, took the stage next with a considerably polished eight-piece band. Misty has moved on from the Fleet Foxes’ “freak folk” to a sound that’s one part very early Elton John and another part Abbey Road-era Beatles. He kicked off the set with “Pure Comedy,” the title track to his latest album, and the entire set had a very ’70s rock sound, with an occasional nod to ’80s British synth bands. The highlight of his show came when he jokingly told the audience, “This is the part where I light my guitar on fire,” referring to Hendrix’s famous Monterey stunt, and asked for a lighter. When a super-efficient, but somewhat clueless roadie ran on stage and brought him one, he pointed out that he wasn’t actually playing guitar on the song. The Hendrix reference was Misty’s one nod to the first Monterey Pop since he, like Spektor, only performed original material.

Capping the bill on the first night of the festival was the difficult-to-classify Leon Bridges, from Fort Worth, Tex. While obviously heavily influenced by ’50s and ’60s R&B and soul, his second number was practically rockabilly and a Duane Allman-like slide guitar punctuated several of his later songs in the set. He drew the biggest and most diverse crowd of the day.

Watch Bridges pay homage to Redding

All in all, it was an incredible day of music. Will any of the new performers at this year’s festival reach the heights that those of the original did? Check back with us in 50 years and we’ll let you know. Actually, just check back tomorrow for exclusive coverage of day two of the festival.

Bonus video: Watch Buffalo Springfield perform “For What it’s Worth” at the ’67 event

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