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Music DVD Review: A Night At The Family Dog: A Ralph J. Gleason Rock Classic Featuring Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and Santana

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The other night I rented the movie Zodiac and watched it for the first time. Having missed it during its theatrical run, I had looked forward to watching it for some time. So anyway, one of the first things I picked up on about the movie was its very inventive use of the music from the same time period the gruesome serial murders occured in Northern California — stuff like Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” for example.

So in this one key scene, they use Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” letting it play out pretty much all the way through during the pivotal scene.

This is not, by the way, a review of Zodiac (though I would highly recommend it as one of the better movies I’ve seen this year). The reason I bring it up here at all is because in this scene, the odd dichotomy between the wild spirit of experimentation in both art and music going on in and around San Francisco at the time, and the horrifying crimes of the Zodiac killer, seems to point itself towards some sort of ultimate truism.

I’m not exactly sure what that truism is, but I am damn sure that whatever it is, Ralph J. Gleason is a guy who understood it completely. One of the most respected jazz music critics in America at the time, Gleason put his reputation at considerable risk by embracing the psychedelic rock music coming out of San Francisco at the time. History has of course long since proven that he made the right call. But at the time, Gleason had no doubt horrified jazz purists from one coast to the next in doing so.

Watching the remarkable footage captured on this DVD, it’s not at all hard to see how Gleason was able to connect the dots between the improvisational spirit of jazz, and what was going on in the Bay Area during the heady period of the late sixties to the early seventies.

In one of a series of shows Gleason produced for the National Education Television Network, what were arguably the three biggest rock bands to come from San Francisco at the time — Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and the Grateful Dead — are captured here in some of the most remarkable footage from that era that I have ever seen.

What you see here are a lot of the things you would expect from a period piece shot during this era. There’s the psychedelic light show, there’s the stoned out hippies in the crowd, and of course there’s the hippie chicks with the bouncing breasts dancing like there is simply no tomorrow. Damn, I miss those days.

But what you also see here, is the spirit of free form improvisation that set San Francisco music uniquely apart from everything else that was going on in rock music at the time.

For their part, Santana does play “Soul Sacrifice” here. But it is a comparitively much more subtle version than the fiery performance captured in the Woodstock movie. Carlos was the star of that show. Here, it is rather the unique percussive combination of drummer Mike Shrieve and those conga guys, Mike Carabello and Jose Chepito Areas. Dave Brown, who is surely one of the most underated players to ever pick up a bass guitar also looks and sounds great on this DVD.

Speaking of great bass players, the Jefferson Airplane footage here is something else entirely. This is simply the best live Airplane stuff I have ever seen — much, much better than what is shown on the band’s one official live DVD, Fly.

The main reason for this is that — unlike other live Airplane performances — this one zeroes in specifically on Jack Casady, who is for my money one of rock and roll’s best bassists ever. During an intense version of “Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil,” Casady is shown up close and personal, letting his long fingers do the walking all over the place on his bass. The camera also zeroes in on Jorma Kaukonen doing a great guitar solo during the Grace Slick vocal vehicle “Eskimo Blue Day.”

Of the three bands represented here, the one I never quite “got” was the Grateful Dead. Still, it is kind of cool to see their somewhat funky take on “Hard To Handle,” a song most often associated these days with the Black Crowes. You don’t see a whole lot of the Dead here, as the cameraman seems to be particularly fixated on one of those hippie chicks with the bouncing boobs doing the fertility dance that such hippie chicks do. For their own parts, Jerry Garcia sounds pretty damn tasty here, and Bob Weir looks — well, really, really young.

The DVD closes out out with an all-star jam featuring all three bands, plus members of Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Steve Miller Band (although tried as I might, I couldn’t see any of the guys from those other bands). Hell, the only thing missing here was Janis and Big Brother. So as historic a moment as having three of the arguably best guitarists in the world in Santana, Garcia, and Kaukonen onstage at the same time was, the spotlight here is once again on Casady. If I didn’t say so before, damn is that guy an amazing bass player.

This is an absolutely great DVD. I’m not sure where or how the folks at Eagle Vision continue to come up with such amazing stuff from the archives of rock like this, but here is hoping they continue to do so.

A Night At The Family Dog will be at your local video store this Tuesday August 7.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • David

    Actually, Janis does appear, briefly, dancing in the crowd during the jam. She would be dead about a month later, so it’s sort of poignant, if you think that way.