On The Record: DVDs Capture San Francisco’s Glory Days, plus Frankie Ford, Bill Pritchard, Cal Tjader, & David Deacon

For a brief time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, San Francisco was at the center of what appeared to be a burgeoning new world, one in which rock bands were not just musicians. They were in the vanguard of a movement that rejected practically everything that had come before and sought to replace it with one never-ending night of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and revolutionary politics.

Alas, it didn’t last, but you can still get a taste of Haight-Ashbury’s heyday via three approximately hour-long films that Rolling Stone co-founder and cutting-edge-music champion Ralph J. Gleason originally presented on public television. A Night at the Family Dog first came out on DVD in 2007 while Go Ride the Music and West Pole followed in 2008. Now all three have been collected on a two-DVD set.

The first of these films delivers just what its title promises: a video of one evening’s show at the Family Dog, a San Francisco concert venue run by Bill Graham competitor Chet Helms. Recorded on Feb. 4, 1970, it features two numbers by Santana, including the expansive instrumental, “Soul Sacrifice”; three by the Grateful Dead (their own “China Cat Sunflower” plus Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” and the traditional “I Know You Rider”); and two by Jefferson Airplane (“Eskimo Blue Day” and a scorching “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”). The night ends with a fiery jam that features members of all three groups.

The producers did relatively more editing of the material included in Go Ride the Music, which incorporates some distracting split-screen images and a few forgettable interview snippets featuring the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. The music, from Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, is excellent, however. You can see an admiring Garcia looking on as the Airplane delivers incendiary versions of such early classics as “We Can Be Together,” “Volunteers,” “Wooden Ships,” “Somebody to Love,” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” The vocal work, particularly by Grace Slick and Marty Balin, is impassioned, and so are the contributions by Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden, and Paul Kantner. And while Quicksilver isn’t in the same league, it would be hard to conclude from its set that anything other than bad luck kept it from achieving the sort of success enjoyed by some of its peers.

West Pole, in which Gleason appears on camera to introduce the bands, is the least noteworthy of the three movies. It includes brief, unilluminating interviews with fans who name their favorite acts plus live performances from only two groups: Ace of Cups, an early (and extant) all-female rock band that deserved more attention than it received in the 60s; and Sons of Champlin, who perform one number. The rest of the film pairs the audio from various studio recordings with psychedelic imagery and clips of the Steve Miller Band, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver. This material – the sort of thing that would have aired on MTV if there’d been such a network back then – is no match for the concert footage on the other programs.

Of course, none of these more than half-century-old documentaries delivers anything close to today’s production values. The films are not widescreen, the images are a bit grainy, and the camera work looks amateurish by current standards. The remixed and remastered audio is surprisingly good, though, with all three movies offering a choice of the original mono or “extrapolated” stereo or 5.1 surround sound. 

Also Noteworthy

Frankie FordSea Cruise: The Complete Releases 1958–62. Frankie Ford is one of those one-hit wonders who makes you wonder why he had only one hit. The Louisiana native, who died in 2015, sold over a million copies of “Sea Cruise,” an irresistible and hard-rocking 1959 number written by the influential Huey “Piano” Smith. It opens with the sounds of a ship’s foghorn and bells and features the sax-spiced backing track from the original recording by Smith and his group. Just as compelling as the instrumentation is the vocal work by Ford, who sounds like a raunchier, more revved-up version of labelmate Jimmy Clanton as he sings, “Ooh-ee, ooh-ee baby,” and proclaims, “Old man rhythm is in my shoes, it’s no use t’sittin’ and a-singin’ the blues.”

Though Ford had no other major hits, Sea Cruise: The Complete Releases 1958–62 shows he had much more to offer. He recorded with Smith; worked with Fats Domino’s famed producer, Dave Bartholomew; and produced some of the finest R&B tracks to emerge from New Orleans during the late 50s and early 60s. Many of them are on this 30-track collection whose highlights, in addition to the title track, include Smith’s “Roberta,” which the Animals later covered, and “Alimony”; “You Talk Too Much,” which sounds a lot like the hit version by its co-writer, Joe Jones; “Hour of Need,” a beautifully sung ballad credited partly to Dr. John; and “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” a number by Bartholomew and Pearl King that’s redolent of Domino’s recordings.

Bill PritchardSings Poems by Patrick Woodcock. This is at least the 16th album from England’s Bill Pritchard, who has been making music since the 1980s and, for whatever reason, is much better known in France than in his own country or the States. It’s yet another reminder that the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer – whose alt-pop songs have been compared to those of Lloyd Cole and sometimes recall Al Stewart or Ray Davies – deserves a wider audience. Piano and guitar variously share centerstage with his deep, rather nasal vocals on this melodic, sophisticated set, which finds him adding music to new verse by Canadian poet Patrick Woodcock.

Cal Tjader, Huracan. Vibraphonist Cal Tjader wasn’t Latino, but he did more to inject Caribbean and Latin American influences into jazz than many musicians who were. Four years before his 1982 death, he recorded Huracan, a live-in-the-studio set whose dozen instrumentalists included several well-known Latin players. Among them are bassist Poncho Sanchez on congas and Willie Bobo on timbales (paired cylindrical drums), plus two former Frank Zappa associates, alto sax and flute player Gary Foster and baritone saxophonist Kurt McGettrick. Bandleader and keyboardist Clare Fischer, who plays on the set, penned four of the six tracks on this recommended reissue; the other two come from pianist Eddie Cano and songwriter Osvaldo Farres.

David DeaconFour. This album is the first we’ve heard from blues-rock singer David Deacon since the 1990s when he issued three LPs and performed regularly in his native Canada. Deacon, whose deep, gravelly voice occupies a space somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Eric Burdon, includes a song called “Poetry” in which he sings that “poetry falls out of my mouth when I’m talkin’ ‘bout you.” In fact, all his lyrics here – which are mostly wed to music by a collaborator named Andy Ryan – are rather poetic (and when he’s not writing songs, Deacon often is writing poems). 

Highlights include “Arc of Life,” which Deacon says conveys his belief that “what we do is what we are – not what we hoped or believed or just talked about”; “Hard Time,” reportedly about the same relationship that inspired “Poetry”; and “Only in Her Dreams,” which features a searing guitar break and lyrics about a woman whose romance “held a knife to her throat all the time.”

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains five decades’ worth of music reviews, interviews, and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and EncountersLennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.