Monterey Pop Celebrates 50th Anniversary With Classic Covers, Mellow Vibes

Phil Lesh, Eric Burdon, Booker T, Jack Johnson, Norah Jones and more celebrate the iconic fest and the Summer of Love

Monterey Pop Festival's grand finale belonged to Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band, who plowed through an ecstatic hour-and-a-half set. Credit: Douglas Mason/Getty

The Monterey International Pop Festival, held on the Monterey County Fairgrounds in California in 1967, has a legacy of a Summer of Love touchstone and a key showcase for rock music's canonization as capital-A Art. However, during the 50th anniversary concert held over the weekend, it seemed most notable as a blueprint for our current festival-saturated landscape, one that crossed generations with ease. The audience ranged from young kids in tie-dyed shirts to OGs who used massive tree sticks as walking canes. People used both trucker caps and wide-brimmed hats to block out the unseasonably hot afternoon sun. And yes, some women (and men, too) wore flowers in their hair.

The biggest cheers on this three-day weekend went to anyone who revived a 1960s standard, whether it was Friday headliner Leon Bridges singing Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," Nicki Bluhm and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band lighting up Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," the Head and the Heart inviting the Mamas and Papas' Michelle Phillips onstage for "California Dreamin'" or folkie Langhorne Slim tackling Canned Heat's "Going Up the County." On the pathways surrounding the amphitheater, there were two museums dedicated to the classic rock ethos. The first offered a surprisingly complete history of the original festival, from booking documents and contracts to a screening of D.A. Pennebaker's authoritative 1968 documentary Monterey Pop. Then there was the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which displayed prints by Pennebaker, Henry Diltz, Elaine Mayes and other photographers.

Most of the performers sounded like direct descendants from that earlier era. The ones who didn't, like Kurt Vile's puckish, Nineties-styled indie-rock and Father John Misty's world-weary jeremiads, seemed out of place. Yet no one complained about a lack of contemoprary pop, R&B and hip-hop, or even musicians from other countries akin to Monterey '67's performances by Hugh Masekela and Ravi Shankar. Monterey Pop 50 intended to tactfully honor the essence of '67, not invite messy debates about who exactly are the modern corollaries for Jimi Hendrix, the Who and other heroes from yesteryear. That meant sticking to a sweet but narrow spot of throwback soul dynamos like Jacob Banks, savvy rockers like Jackie Greene and Gary Clark Jr., and time-tested organic rock ensembles like ALO.

On Friday, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires dazzled with a medley of Otis Redding's "I Got Dreams to Remember" and "Pain in My Heart"; Redding had contributed one of Monterey Pop's most indelible performances before dying tragically in a plane crash six months later. After Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats played a peppery, Stax-styled rendition of "Need Never Get Old," Rateliff said, "It's been 50 years since the Summer of Love. America, we need so much love right now."

Then there was Eric Burdon of the Animals, one of four Monterey Pop acts at the 50th (alongside Phillips, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and Booker T Jones of Booker T & The MGs.) Vaunted industry legend Andrew Loog Oldham introduced him by wryly noting, "It is a total privilege to be with you 15 minutes later." Burdon looked striking in a leather jacket and blue-and-white scarf that complimented his shock of white hair. The leather jacket was particularly brave considering the afternoon's soaring heat. (He eventually took the jacket off.) "Great crowd, you look wonderful," he said after opening with "Don't Bring Me Down."

Burdon's punchy, energetic set proved he has lost none of his power as one of rock's great shouters. His rendition of "When I Was Young" took on fresh poignancy when he sang, "My faith was so much stronger then/I really believed in myself then." He roared through "Monterey," his tribute to the '67 festival, and took delight in the line, "10,000 electric guitars were groovin' real loud." Then he told the crowd, "A little kid came up to my dressing room a few weeks ago, he asked me, Whatever happened to protest songs? I said, Well, I'll give you the best protest song." Then he played a stark version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," eliciting a sing-along in the process. "Stop that shit! Stop it!" he roared to the world's warmongers at its end.

On Saturday, the vibe remained mellow and carefree as revelers showed equal appreciation for Dr. Dog's friendly Americana and Jim James' challenging electronic fusions. James, who once personified heartland rock during his band My Morning Jacket's classic years, has since abandoned that path for a polarizing mix of pop experiments. He rapped verses during "Hide in Plain Sight," then played the protest song "It's the Same Old Lie," and the neo-trip-hop number "Know Til Now," all while not bothering to talk to the audience. Finally, he rewarded his audience's patience with the weekend's second rendition of "For What It's Worth," which he punctuated with a ringing guitar solo.

When Norah Jones took the stage, she didn't mention her father, Ravi Shankar, whose rapturously engaging sitar arrangements fueled the climax to Monterey Pop. She delivered an imaginative, feminist remake of Neil Young's "Don't Be Denied," and couples swayed along as she sang her hit "Don't Know Why." At the end, she closed with a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Ripple."

Jones reappeared during Jack Johnson's headlining set for a duet of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." The audience was clearly enthralled with Johnson, whose laidback meditations on life and domesticity personifies California's Central Coast spirit. He reminded us that he once lived in Monterey: "This became my second home because I started crashing at my [girlfriend's] parents' house," he said of his future wife as he introduced "Home." He strummed covers of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxey Lady" and Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," weaved parts of Bob Marley & the Wailers' "Mellow Mood" into "Same Girl," and invited Jim James to sing a mirthful cover of the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon." He invited his two best friends Brian and Emma onstage because it was their birthdays, then he made Brian crowdsurf while he and G Love – who performed earlier that day with the supergroup Jamtown – blew through "Mudfootball." "See you guys soon," Jackson said cheerily at his set's end. "I'm in Monterey. Let's hang out."

Sunday brought Booker T Jones' Stax Revue. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter, organist and bandleader introduced each number with a short anecdote. "When we were here before, we were here with my friend who's not here anymore. He's from Macon, Georgia, and his name's Otis Redding. We're going to do this next one for him," he said, right before launching a rollicking version of Redding's "Respect." The final number, an extended version of "Time Is Tight," felt like a homage to all the Stax stars who are no longer with us.

The grand finale belonged to Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band, who plowed through an ecstatic hour-and-a-half set. Humbly, Lesh contentedly blended into the five-man ensemble (as well as guest vocalist Nicki Bluhm), plucking out thick bass notes while sharing vocals with guitarists Grahame Lesh and Ross James, blurring together Dead gems with jazzy chord changes, bluesy squalls and rhythmic pulses. The clear highlight was a sequence that opened with "Jack of Straw," and then segued into a lovely and elegiac interpretation of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," turning Dylan's masterpiece into a heartbreaking ballad that makes you feel the loneliness in his words.

"It's just a rare honor and privilege to be back here," Lesh told his acolytes at evening's end, before revealing that he recently had a life-saving liver transplant. "I almost didn't make it."