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BLAIR’S DVD WATCH: Classic Rock from San Francisco

Santana, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane: A Night at the Family Dog
(Eagle Media)

As a fan of San Francisco music from the ’60s and early ’70s, I’ve long owned a decent bootleg VHS copy of the famous 1970 PBS hour-long special A Night at the Family Dog, which features performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana, as well as a chaotic jam session. It’s finally come out on DVD from the good folks at Eagle Media, under the auspices of Toby Gleason, son of the late San Francisco Chronicle (and Rolling Stone) music columnist Ralph Gleason, who was a great advocate for the early SF bands. The sound on this release is excellent, and though the video quality is perhaps half a step away from crystal clear (it’s a tad grainy), it still stands as a most remarkable document of the San Francisco ballroom scene in full flower. It was taped February 4, 1970 at the Family Dog ballroom on the Great Highway in SF, and it aired originally in December 1970.

Santana was riding a huge wave of success following their triumphant appearance at Woodstock (though it was actually the film Woodstock that really catapulted them to megastardom) and the release of their first album. Still, they were relative newcomers compared with Dead and Airplane, so they get third billing here. All the strengths that would carry the band to the top of the rock heap are present here, as they charge through incendiary versions of “Incident at Neshabur” and (of course) “Soul Sacrifice.” There was definitely a chemistry to the original Santana band that was unique to this lineup; the interaction between the percussionists and lead players in something to behold, and Carlos still feels like he’s discovering his style, rather than recycling it. Muy caliente!

At the time this was taped in the winter of 1970, the Dead were still a couple of months away from their first successful album, Workingman’s Dead, but they already had a solid following and were renowned for their free-flowing jams and exciting rhythmic playing. What’s here is definitely prime Dead—if not exactly face-meltingly psychedelic. Singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan looks and sounds great on the group’s funky take on Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” and the popular combination “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” lets the group stretch out a bit to nice effect. It’s always somewhat jarring for me to see Jerry Garcia as a young man, rather than the graying icon he became later in life. He’s in great form here, as are all the bandmembers. At times the director seems nearly as interested in capturing the undulating breasts of nubile hippie girls in their loose-flowing tops dancing on the side of the stage as in showing the band, but it’s still a powerful look at the group during this still-formative period.

One forgets that in early 1970 the Jefferson Airplane were still top dogs of the SF scene, so they get the “headlining” slot. They’re represented by a pair of unusual choices: Paul Kantner’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” is highlighted by the screaming lead guitar of Jorma Kaukonen and thundering bass of Jack Casady (surely one of rock’s all-time great tandems); and Grace Slick’s moody “Eskimo Blue Day,” from the still-new Volunteers album. Forgive me if I note that Grace has never looked more radiant than she does here—wow, those eyes! But it’s her singing that’s even more mesmerizing. When she was “on” (no pun intended) she really knew how to command a stage. It’s sad that the Airplane’s descent into chaos would begin shortly after this and they never quite regained the momentum they built with 1969 live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head and the classic Volunteers.

The disc closes with a jam session featuring a teeming stage-full of musicians from all three bands—plus Gary Duncan of Quicksilver Messenger Service, for good measure—and like a lot of well-intentioned jam sessions, it’s kind of a mess, with occasional flashes of brilliance. Garcia acquits himself particularly well, and Jack Casady’s right there laying down a thick bass line for others to snake around, but it’s really a case of too much directionless firepower, too much full-throttle percussion for my taste. That said, I’m sure if you were there and really high, it was probably a great time.

Next time: Heart’s Dreamboat Annie gets the Classic Albums Live treatment, and the Flaming Lips land their spaceship at the Oklahoma Zoo!

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