The Doors were still a club band in the late winter and spring of 1967 — not yet stars, not quite spectacle, reliant on blues and R&B covers to get through a whole evening on the bandstand. Stuck in a long limbo between the January release of their debut album, The Doors, and the summertime explosion of their second single, “Light My Fire,” the group played discothèques in Los Angeles and New York and, during a legendary engagement that March, more than a dozen sets over five nights at the Matrix, a tiny seated club in San Francisco. This two-CD set is the first official release of the widely bootlegged tapes made there, and barring the discovery of previously unknown reels from the band’s 1966 learning curve on the Sunset Strip, the two dozen rough but vivid tracks on Live at the Matrix are the closest we will get to hearing the live Doors in their early heated maturity, before singer Jim Morrison’s addiction to abandon turned their arena shows into hit-and-miss theater.
Even with a year’s gigging and that perfect first album behind them, Morrison, organist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore seem at times like a band in transition, not yet done working out the kinks in their interplay. “Light My Fire” opens like a wet match, in low bossa-nova gear — Manzarek’s famous intro lick doesn’t show up until after the first verse. But more often, the Doors sound sure of their gifts — they perform half of their next LP, Strange Days — and stretch out with a unique, muscular cohesion, despite the lack of a conventional bassist. Densmore’s military snap, Krieger’s metallic-sinew sustain and Manzarek’s meaty, rolling-Bach surge in the midsection of “Soul Kitchen” and the long climax of “Moonlight Drive” are punchy psychedelic funk. After Morrison improvises new lines midway through “The End” (“Can you stand by and watch the pictures burn….”), the band swerves in kind, with a brief, jolting shift in the tense raga flow.
There is an unusual restraint in Morrison’s vocals, a concentration rare on later live recordings, as if he didn’t have enough room to perform at the Matrix. But he was never better, onstage or on record, than when he was in control of his impulses, and Morrison directs his eruptions in the dark march of “The Crystal Ship,” the hellbent charge of “My Eyes Have Seen You” and the pure lust of Them’s “Gloria” with a feral will and melodic clarity. The sparse, polite applause on these recordings suggests the Doors were not, in March 1967, the hottest thing in town. Everything else shows why that would change — soon.