The Monterey International Pop Festival half a century ago was iconic. It launched the careers of some legendary musicians and created a blueprint for future music festivals. The producers of this weekend’s 50th anniversary of Monterey Pop never set out to recreate the original, but did find ways to celebrate it. And they also set the festival apart from other music festivals today.
Singer-songwriter Sara Watkins kicked off this past weekend’s Monterey International Pop Festival. With her soulful voice, she serenaded the crowd before her -- a sea of music-lovers sprawled out on colorful blankets at the Monterey County Fairgrounds.
Jessica Helms danced in the front row with her sister.
“I’m kind of thinking about who was standing here before and how they were experiencing the show,” Helms said.
One thing’s for sure -- the people who were here 50 years ago weren’t experiencing the show through their smart phones.
Helms and her sister have been to other big music festival like Coachella and Outside Lands in San Francisco. They say half the time the crowd has hundreds of phones in the air. People taking pictures and selfies to post on Instagram and Snapchat. Not sharing it with those around them, but people on the internet.
“Oh yeah especially the younger people like they want it all recorded and I’m like you’re not going to remember this as well unless you’re actually here in present,” Helms said.
But this audience was different. It was diverse, young and old. And while some were clicking and posting away, many phones stayed in pockets. That was encouraged by musician Langhorne Slim. He talked about being present when he took the stage, especially in these politically divisive times.
“If there was ever a time for us to look each other in the eye as humans and say I dig you brother, I love you sister, I believe in my heart this is as good a time as there’s ever been,” Slim said to the crowd.
I met him backstage after his set. He said he understands when people pull their phones out, but…
“You want to connect with eyeballs and hearts more than telephones. As somebody that has become very accustomed to having my phone constantly on me, that to disconnect is a good way to reconnect.”
Creating an experience where more people stayed in the moment was part of the design of this weekend’s Monterey Pop Festival. These days big music festivals usually have performers up on five stages all at the same time. Producers here intentionally kept the performances to one stage.
Gregg Perloff with Another Planet Entertainment, one of the producers of the show, says that’s what it was like 50 years ago.
“There’s a coming together at a festival like this when everybody in the house is in one place at one time experiencing the same thing. I’m not saying you’re experiencing it the same way but the social interaction of that is really wonderful.”
Perloff says they also tried to be different with the artists they booked. By looking for musicians they really believe in. People he calls lifetime artists rather than commercially popular.
“I’m not saying there’s no overlap. But here it was all about how do we put together three days of music that after you see those three days you will be a different person,” Perloff said.
Those three days wrapped up Sunday night with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, which also played the original. A performance that brought the Monterey Pop full circle.