The Fiery Sounds of the Monterey International Pop Festival


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Though Big Brother and the Holding Company and its lead singer Janis Joplin were some of Monterey’s biggest breakout stars — the band got a record deal with Columbia on the strength of its performance — their initial Saturday afternoon set had not been captured on film. When it became clear that Joplin’s ragged rendition of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” (performed here in 1970 at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium) would go down as one of the weekend’s highlights, she and the band were given a two-song encore slot the following day, which Pennebaker and his crew were sure to film. That bonus performance resulted in one of my favorite moments in Pennebaker’s documentary: an awed reaction shot of Cass Elliot watching Joplin and mouthing the word “wow.”

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The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were bigger in the U.K. than the U.S. in June 1967, but after Monterey that would change for both of them. A friendly competition existed between these two acts, and they decided to flip a coin to determine who would go first — and who would get to make it seem like they had invented the idea of destroying one’s guitar onstage. The Who won the coin flip, and their kinetic performance of set closer “My Generation” ended in destruction.

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Yet another of the festival’s breakout stars was Otis Redding, who was backed by not one but two great groups: the session brass players the Mar-Keys and instrumental Memphis soul powerhouses Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Redding’s performance was so electrifying that Pennebaker later released a stand-alone short film, “Shake! Otis at Monterey,” documenting the entire set.

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Knowing that he now had to upstage the Who, the wily Hendrix acquired a small container of lighter fluid and hid it onstage. The rest — his groundbreaking, earth-scorching performance and the sacrificial conflagration in which it ended — is rock history.

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Though the Indian sitarist Shankar’s hypnotic set took place earlier on Sunday, Pennebaker wisely used it as the finale of his film, underscoring the “international” descriptor in the festival’s title and providing an ecstatic comedown to the weekend’s long, strange trip.

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