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Music DVD Review: The Doors – Live At The Bowl ’68

For a band long celebrated as one of the great live rock acts ever, the lack of any truly definitive concert document from The Doors – on record, film or otherwise – has for decades represented a very large, gaping hole in their otherwise stellar catalog.

Not that there haven’t been numerous tries over the years. But for whatever reasons (and they include everything from poor sound and film quality, to sub-par performances), The Doors have just never been able to produce their own version of something on the order of Get Your Yas-Yas Out or The Who Live At Leeds.

Live At The Bowl ’68, released this week in multiple formats including CD, Vinyl, Blu-ray and DVD, attempts to remedy this by restoring a semi-legendary 1968 Doors performance from the Hollywood Bowl in their hometown of L.A. There have been previous versions of this show available through the years, but none of them have ever looked or sounded anywhere near this good.

The high-def, digital film transfer here, all but eliminates the sort of graininess that has often plagued other concert films of this particular vintage. The sound is likewise crisper and clearer than anything you’ve ever heard from previous live Doors recordings. You hear everything from the top layer of Morrison’s voice and Ray Manzarek’s calliope keyboards, down to the bottom end of Robbie Kreiger’s raga-runs on guitar and John Densmore’s rim-shots on the drums (especially on “When The Music’s Over”).

But the performance is most noteworthy, because it captures The Doors at the top of their game, during a period when their notoriety came more from their music, than because of the antics of their lead singer. Watching this DVD, it’s actually quite a stretch reconciling the guys seen mostly running through a tightly played set of their greatest hits here, with the more notorious concerts that came later.

Morrison mostly keeps the drama, improvisation, and even the poetry, down to a minimum (at least compared to other Doors live recordings). The setlist is tight and seemingly well-rehearsed, which is especially evident during a medley of “Back Door Man” and “Five To One.” But outside of Morrison bending over once to point his ass towards the crowd during “Light My Fire,” there is nary a hint of the sort of provocative “indecency” that got both him and his band banned from nearly every arena in America a scant year later.

If anything, The Doors play it both safe and mostly straight on Live At The Bowl ’68. Outside of the occasional leap, (and one very dramatic and effective bit where he falls over as if he’d been shot during “The Unknown Soldier”), Morrison displays little of the theatrical flair he is best known for. There is one very funny moment during the mid-section of “When The Music’s Over” though. Morrison follows the usual silence of the “I hear a very gentle sound” part by letting a nice burp rip.

But most of the time Morrison and the rest of the band just stand there and play. With just about anyone else, this might make for a fairly boring show. But between Morrison’s undeniable stage presence and charisma, and the considerable musical chops of the rest of The Doors, Live At The Bowl ’68 keeps you riveted to the screen.

This still isn’t quite that definitive live Doors document that fans have been waiting decades for. In all likelihood, it’s probably a little too late to expect that. But it comes very close. Bonus features on the DVD include performances of “Wild Child” (from The Smothers Brothers Show) and “Light My Fire” (from The Jonathan Winters Show), as well as behind the scenes featurettes from both then and now.

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.