Ralph J. Gleason Presents Go Ride The Music & West Pole
(Featuring Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service,
Grateful Dead & More)
Written by Glen Boyd
Published June 07, 2008
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.