Can the Monterey Pop Revival Capture the Spirit of '67?

As Norah Jones, Jack Johnson, Phil Lesh, Eric Burdon and Booker T. Jones gear up for fest's revival, they reflect on the legacy of the summer of '67

Booker T. Jones, Phil Lesh, Norah Jones and others look ahead to the new Monterey Pop, and reflect on whether the original message can still resonate. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

When Norah Jones considers why she wanted to participate in the 50th anniversary revival of the Monterey International Pop Festival ­– the prototype for everything from Woodstock to Coachella – she gives an answer that sounds like something a hippie would have said a half-century ago: "It just sounded like a really good energy."

The original Monterey Pop festival – which featured Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, the Who and Jones' father, Ravi Shankar, among countless others – took place from June 16th through 18th, 1967, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, on a stage that bore the words "Music, Love and Flowers." It drew approximately 50,000 fans each day yet there were no arrests. The sequel is taking place this weekend on the exact same dates and in the same place but with a lineup that features both Monterey newcomers – Jones, Jack Johnson, Leon Bridges – and some returning performers, including the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh, Booker T. Jones (who backed up Redding with his group, the M.G.'s) and Eric Burdon.

The original was a monumental event in music history, with a legacy spurred on by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker's brilliant, pioneering concert film, Monterey Pop, which captured Hendrix igniting his guitar and Redding's show-stopping confidence, as well as a legion of gentle, peace-mongering concertgoers. Pennebaker's film has gotten a 4K restoration and will see a theatrical re-release across the U.S. this weekend, and organizers are also marking the anniversary with a compilation titled Iconic Performances From the Monterey International Pop Festival. The original had such a pervasive feeling to it that organizers have given this new edition the slogan, "It happened in Monterey."

At the time of the original festival, the Vietnam War was raging, President Lyndon B. Johnson was facing a tense "credibility gap" with the press over his statements about the conflict, and a month after the festival, riots rocked Newark and Detroit – in other words, the political climate wasn't too different from what it is today. So can the Monterey of 2017 evoke the same feeling and ethos of the original?

"There are similarities between America now and then," says Burdon, who recently covered Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" in protest to the racism and brutality pervading the news cycle. "At that time, kids were waking up to activism, in regards to L.B.J. and Vietnam. We can never get back to the innocence we shared at that moment in history. I am sure this gathering will have its own spirit of peace, love and great music."

The Animals frontman was initially reluctant to be a part of the Monterey revival. The freeing feeling of the original was so infectious that he'd even turned down playing Woodstock two years later because, he says, he "knew Monterey couldn't be matched." Ultimately, he decided to return to "represent [the artists] who didn't make it," which include Hendrix, Joplin, Shankar and even one of the festival's co-founders, Mama and the Papas mastermind John Phillips. "I'm sure that their spirits will be present," he says, though he still hints at reluctance. "I would be a lot more enthusiastic if I was playing in the dark – the spirits prefer that."

"I hope it just brings good feelings and, you know, peace and love for the moment in that specific place," Norah Jones says, thinking about the mood of Monterey. "It's interesting, though, watching the film [Monterey Pop] and just thinking about how crazy the world is now. I think the world seemed crazy then probably, too, but it sure looks beautiful in the film. It's people spreading love."

"The festival thing and the whole hippie thing was new to us, so it was a signal that things were changing in the world," Booker T. Jones says. "We knew things were changing forever for the human race. The love generation – it was a real thing. We felt it was very prevalent." Jones's M.G.'s had helped develop Redding's onstage routine while on tour with the Stax/Volt Revue in England and France earlier that year and remembers Redding, then age 25, being somewhat nervous about going onstage but that he got his confidence almost immediately and became one of the most talked-about acts of the festival. "He was always intense," says Jones, who is promising hits from throughout the Stax-Volt catalogue this weekend. "He was quietly purposeful, whether he was onstage or not."

"I remember he said something like, 'So this is the Love Generation,' and went, 'Whew, well, I've been loving youuu,' and went right into the song," the Grateful Dead's bassist, Phil Lesh, recalls. "And the lights come on and he's there in that green suit. Oh, it was fucking fantastic."

Lesh is another returning artist looking forward to revisiting the Monterey vibe, though, unlike Booker, he does not have fond memories of the original. "We didn't feel like we played very well," he says of the Dead's performance, a song from which ("Cold Rain and Snow") is on the new compilation. "That was the start of our interior tradition where, 'Oh, we always blow the big ones.' Add Woodstock to that." This time, he's excited to experience Monterey with his Terrapin Family Band, which includes his son Grahame. "It's going to be exciting to be able to revisit that spirit and that venue with the younger musicians that I'm working with now."

Asked whether he thinks the feeling of the original Monterey can be replicated, Lesh laughs and jokes that the answer is above his pay grade. "The situation in the world today is so fluid," he says. "Anything can happen and usually does."

When Pennebaker, now age 91, looks back on the original Monterey, he's still astounded by how the artists and audience seemed like one community. "It's very seldom you see people who perform come out and sit and watch the other artists perform," the filmmaker says, pointing to a shot of the Monkees' Micky Dolenz becoming overcome with joy by Shankar as one of his favorites. "It was like a village gathering of some sort. There was no cloistering off of people because of their being from San Francisco or Los Angeles."

Part of what made it unique, he says, was that the crowd was big – but not too big, like Woodstock, which attracted three times the audience two years later. Moreover, because Phillips and producer Lou Adler had convinced all of the artists except for Shankar to play for free (the sitarist had worked out a deal for a $3,000 fee before they decided to make it free) the artists' egos were in check, with no one clamoring for top billing. The money earned went to charity. This year, artists are getting a fee and a percentage of proceeds will go to the Monterey International Pop Foundation, which empowers "music-related personal development, creativity, and mental and physical health."

Pennebaker will be attending the festival this weekend. One of his sons, Jojo, is directing the film of the new fest and another, Kit, is a cameraman. Nevertheless, he's managing his expectations. "Some elders are coming, but I don't know whether they'll be playing or not," he says. "I don't know what to expect. It's like a ghost of a concert, isn't it?

"They can't get Hendrix and Otis back," he continues. "We've had four or five generations that have come in the past 50 years. The audience isn't like the audience from then. It's an audience that's kind of curious but has gotten used to a totally different kind of music, so you have a problem of how to connect. But, in a way, that's what concerts are for. People come with open minds and open ears and maybe it'll work. I think nobody's sure, but it's something to do because it's something to memorialize. It was one-of-a-kind."

Lou Adler, who is returning as a consultant this year, agrees with Pennebaker. When he was approached about relaunching Monterey by Paul Tollett, the president and CEO of Goldenvoice – the company responsible for Coachella, Stagecoach, FYF and other festivals that is partnering with the San Francisco–based Another Planet Entertainment for the new Monterey – Adler was incredulous. "I said, 'There's no way to do Monterey again,'" he recalls, pointing to the feeling of the time and the fact that the Who and Hendrix were relatively unknown to Americans, as was Otis Redding who'd been playing mostly to African-American audiences. Also, the demography of Monterey has changed greatly since 1967. "We might have a difficult time drawing from outside of that Monterey area – San Francisco, San Jose – but there's just so many festivals now. People can go around the corner from their house and go to a festival. We were the only one going at the time."

Adler and Phillips had taken inspiration for the original Monterey from their friend, Alan Pariser, who promoted concerts in Los Angeles. He'd seen how jazz festivals came together and realized that there was no forum for rock & roll. It was his idea to hold a festival in Monterey and dub it the Monterey Pop Festival, a moniker in the style of the Newport Jazz Festival. He got some money from promoter Bill Graham, as well as a friend, and brought in Adler and Phillips as co-directors to give the venture weight. They in turn attracted a "board of governors" – Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Brian Wilson among them – who offered advice. There never was an official governors' meeting, but as Rolling Stone reported in 1987, board member Paul Simon flew to San Francisco to smooth things over with the local bands who thought that Los Angelenos Adler and Phillips would co-opt the scene. Wilson's Beach Boys donated an 8-track tape recorder, and the Beatle recommended the Who and Hendrix – who famously argued with one another over who got to destroy their instruments first – as performers. Admission cost between $3 and $6.50.

"The whole idea started as a con," Burdon says. "There were rumors that the Beatles would perform there. It was all over the music industry. They started asking, 'Are you going to Monterey? Are you going to Monterey?' But it ended up being an artist-created event, intended to give pop music, as we called it then, the same cultural weight as jazz and folk, in terms of respectability. ... The timing of it was exactly right to catch the spirit of a new generation of long-haired, anti-war, peace-and-love crowd. All the conditions were perfect. Everyone was under the same influence, all on the same wavelength." Burdon later penned a Number 15–charting hit called "Monterey," which he'll be performing this weekend, with lyrics culled straight from his journal.

Adler says there is no board of governors this year, and tickets go for $105 per day, with three-day packages running between $295 and $695, and parking passes available for purchase. In his role as a consultant, Adler has been offering advice on what is OK to do and what not to do. He also contributed items to an on-site exhibit about the original fest, including some artists' original guitars and outfits and materials he used when working on the original. "I can tell you what David Crosby ordered for breakfast and how much it cost," he says. He also suggested that Burdon and Booker T. return. The artists Adler is most looking forward to seeing this weekend are the Head and the Heart, Father John Misty and Norah Jones. "The fact that her father was on that stage 50 years ago ... " he says, trailing off.

Norah, who wants to plan a special set list for the festival, says she recently watched Monterey Pop, which ends with an extended scene of her father's performance, including the looks of awe and joy on the faces of concertgoers. "It must have been just so different," she says. "He and Alla Rakha together were such incredible masters of music. It's just so beautiful. I'm just thinking, 'Wow, he was, like, 47 years old.' And I know he didn't really do drugs at all, so I wonder what he thought about the whole scene. I have no idea."

Jim James, the My Morning Jacket frontman who will be performing solo at the fest, feels a similar feeling of wonderment when he thinks about performing on the same stage that so many of his favorite artists played half a century ago. "It was such a beautiful time when the most popular music in the world was actually amazing," he says, pointing to Hendrix and the Who as two favorites. "It's a crazy concept to think that artists were rewarded for making far-out, insane music that was still accessible. And the legend of Monterey Pop and the competition between the Who and Hendrix made me really excited to play it when they asked." He says, however, he doesn't feel any rivalry with anyone the way the Who and Hendrix did. "No competition, those days are over," he says. "I've got nothing but peace and love in my heart."

Peace and love, of course, are the threads that connect Monterey across the decades. It's a sentiment that means a lot especially to Jack Johnson, who's headlining Saturday. He feels that the mood of the original fest is attainable.

"I think it's important to try to achieve that kind of mindset," he says. "There was a time where I was at a music festival about 10 years ago and somebody asked me, 'Don't you feel like with what is happening in the country, you should be writing more protest songs and less love songs?' And I was about to answer, and [Grateful Dead guitarist] Bob Weir was next to me, and said, 'Can I answer this one for you? The best kinds of songs, the ones that are going to help stop war are love songs. That's putting love into the world and trying to bring more of that than any protest song ever will.'

"So I think that 'love, peace and flowers' type of thing is important," he continues. "If you can make music that somebody puts on in the morning that puts 'em in the mood where they're not as confrontational, it will have a more positive effect than any of the protest songs that I'd try to write anyways. I think both are important. But maybe the love ones are more important."