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Published: 2007/09/04
by Brian Ferdman

A Night At The Family Dog

Eagle Rock EV 30122-9

Modern technology never ceases to amaze. Through websites like YouTube, people are able to take a glance into the past, watching film clips, TV shows, and performances from years gone by. The expansive DVD market and the subsequent discovery of "lost" archival material has furthered this experience. However, modern technology has also exposed mankind to modern camera techniques and state-of-the-art editing, spoiling the viewer and leaving him somewhat jaded and disappointed when watching old footage that is riddled with technological flaws.

The Family Dog was Chet Helms’ famous West Coast venue that was home to many of San Francisco's most popular psychedelic acts in the late 1960s. Rolling Stone co-founder and renowned jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason had the bright idea of filming these explosive bands in action, and a special was made for PBS affiliates across the country. This footage has been assembled onto one 60-minute DVD, entitled A Night At The Family Dog.

The first act on the bill in this February 4, 1970 private party is Santana, fresh off their career-defining moment at Woodstock. This is clearly a band in high gear and the percussion laden jams of "Incident at Neshabur" and "Soul Sacrifice" are excellent. Next on the docket are The Grateful Dead, who deliver mediocre-by-their-lofty-1970-standards performances of "Hard to Handle" and "China Cat Sunflower->I Know You Rider." It's not that these renditions are really bad; it's more that they're anything but special at a time when the band was blowing minds on a nightly basis. Occasionally, the instruments lose sight of the beat and get away from each other, and the songs feel a bit understated, as even Pigpen mails it in. The final entrant is Jefferson Airplane, cresting at the peak of their career. However, the wheels of their impending breakup seem to already be set in motion, as each band member appears to be lost in their own little world. Nevertheless, the group is still in fine form with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady unleashing great solos throughout "The Ballad of You And Me and Pooneil” and “Eskimo Blue Day.”

The entire mnge concludes with a superjam that features something just shy of 200 people on stage, including members of Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Steve Miller Band. Despite overloading the sound with so many musicians, discernable melodies emerge, and the jam is actually entertaining. Unfortunately, the time constraints of a one hour television show force the jam to be cut off just when the getting is good.

From a viewer's standpoint, this DVD is often maddeningly frustrating. While there appear to be a bevy of cameras used, these cameras are setup at bizarre and obtuse angles that frame the shot poorly. Perhaps this odd setup can be attributed to a holdover-from-the-'60s iconoclastic attitude, but it provides less-than-enjoyable results. The extreme close-up is way overused here, and instead of focusing on the guitarist's blazing fingers like many classic 1970s rockumentaries, we are "treated" to shots of little more than faces. Moreover, the editing is quite puzzling because the frame is almost always showcasing something that has little to do with what's really happening musically. While Jerry Garcia is unleashing a fiery solo, we are observing the sight of Phil Lesh's back or the side of Bill Kreutzmann’s head. Indeed, nearly 50% of the Grateful Dead's screen time is consumed by shots of female hippies jiggling in slow motion, providing living proof that this production was not sponsored by Playtex' Cross-Your-Heart bra.

Any opportunity to see vintage footage of Santana, The Grateful Dead, or Jefferson Airplane is a real find, but it's hard to view A Night At The Family Dog without asking some pertinent "what if’s." What if the bands had been playing in front of someone besides their friends and had each delivered more enthusiastic performances? What if the footage and editing were more modern and sensible? What if a large chunk of the DVD wasn’t consumed with breasts bouncing in slow motion? Well, then we might be talking about a “can’t-miss” release, but unfortunately, A Night At The Family Dog rarely climbs above the level of a historical document. It's a good historical document, but it could have been so much more.

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