For a period that was as artistically rich and historically important to the evolution of American rock music as the late sixties psychedelic era out of San Francisco was, it's simply astonishing how little of that scene has been documented on video. That's why, with the release of the double DVD Ralph J. Gleason Presents Go Ride The Music & West Pole, Eagle Rock Entertainment has officially just become my favorite music video label.
Culled from the personal collection of the late, great San Francisco music critic Ralph J. Gleason, this set follows up on last year's A Night At The Family Dog DVD, which also featured the cream of the Bay Area's crop of psychedelic bands like the Airplane, the Dead, and Santana. It's really amazing this stuff has survived at all, which is why Eagle Rock gets a little extra plug here for bringing it to light all these decades later.
The backstory here is that Gleason, then a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, was also probably the guy most responsible for what we know as rock journalism today. Part of it was luck of course. Gleason just happened to be located smack dab in the middle of what was at the time the most musically vibrant city in the country. With a melting pot of bands that were expanding the parameters of possibility within music (among other things), the Bay Area scene was exploding with creativity.
Gleason's part in all of this was that he was the first critic to approach this music as the serious art form that it was, rather than just dismiss it as mere "teenaged music." As the pioneering critic he was — and as the music began to catch fire first in the Bay Area, and then across the country — Gleason soon began producing a series of shows documenting what was happening for public television. This DVD brings together two of those historic broadcasts.
On Go Ride The Music, the music itself is the main focus, or at least it tries to be.
As I already mentioned, it's a wonder this footage survived at all. But since it was shot way back in the sixties, it also suffers at times from the fact that it would be several decades yet before filmmakers actually learned how to shoot live rock and roll.
Rule number one: we want to see the band. All of them.
There are some electrifying performances captured here by Quicksilver Messenger Service, and especially Jefferson Airplane. The trouble here is that the guys shooting the video are so busy half of the time experimenting with things like psychedelic gimmickry and the dreaded split screen images of the day (anybody seen Woodstock lately?), that the bands seem to be occasionally forgotten about altogether.
Still the focus is for the most part on the music, and what is seen (when not obscured by split screens and video of hippies doing that fertility dance they do), is both fascinating and revealing. In the Airplane's set, it's hard to believe that the band was in the early stages of disintegration at the time.
Everybody seems to be getting along great here, and the band sounds damned inspired on songs like "We Can be Together," "Volunteers," and "Wooden Ships." Watching Grace Slick do that thing she always does where she cups one ear, is a reminder that as great a singer as she was, she was never much of a performer.
Marty Balin on the other hand is a house of fire, and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen's stacatto blasts of fuzz guitar sting like an angry hornet. Sadly, Jack Casady — who besides probably being the best damned bassist of his day, was also hands down the coolest looking — is rarely seen. New drummer Joey Covington, who was still in the process of being broken in at the time, also plays a bit too busy. During "Plastic Fantastic Lover," Balin seems at times to be the only guy who can keep up.
During Quicksilver's set, there is also not so much as a glimpse of keyboard great Nicky Hopkins, though he can be clearly heard throughout. I never much cared for Quicksilver once they recruited pretty boy vocalist Dino Valenti anyway, and this is clearly his show. You do get the good stuff here for one song though, as guitarist John Cippollina shreds his way through vintage Quicksilver's "Mona."
The second disc here, West Pole is a bit less satisfying as it takes more of a documentary approach dealing with the scene itself. Gleason, looking for the all the world like a clone of movie critic Bill Harris (right down to the goofy handlebar mustache), narrates this disc in the sort of scholarly fashion one would expect from the godfather of rock journalism.
This disc works more as a period piece than anything else, and includes footage shot at such historic San Francisco venues as the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West. In one particularly (and unintentionally) funny scene, Gleason recalls trying to list all of the bands at the time as they flash across the screen. It's no small wonder that bands with names like Truman Coyote and The Wakefield Loop never hit the big time.
But there are also some great performances here. In addition to seeing an earlier Steve Miller (with a really young Boz Scaggs in the band) prior to becoming that Fly Like An Eagle guy, you also get live sets from lesser known Bay acts like the Sons Of Champlain and the all-female Ace Of Cups. In the case of the latter, watching them play makes you wonder how they missed the big time with their great "chicks with chops" gimmick.
So, yes this set is not without its flaws. But in a strictly nostalgic sense, the glitches largely work simply because they drive home the authenticity. And again, you gotta give big props to Eagle Rock for bringing a piece as historic as this to light.
Hopefully, there will be more to come.