Whether you’re into their music or not, The Doors: Live at the Bowl ’68 gives fans a chance to see a band (and a rock icon) at the height of their powers. Admittedly, The Doors didn’t have the longest shelf life — the band was formed in 1965, released their self-titled debut album in 1967, and frontman Jim Morrison was found dead in a Paris apartment in 1971 — but their impact can be felt to this day. Of course, when I say the band was at the height of their powers, you should understand that means there’s a pretty good chance Morrison was on acid.
That’s not irresponsible guesswork on my part; drummer John Densmore makes the claim himself in one of the behind-the-scenes documentaries on this disc. (For what it’s worth, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger pass up the chance to confirm Densmore’s statement.)
We’ll get to those docs in a bit, but the main attraction is obviously The Doors’ performance at the Hollywood Bowl on July 5, 1968. The 71-minute set features some of the bluesier selections in the band’s catalog and is highlighted by some of their biggest hits, including a 10-minute performance of “Light My Fire” and 18 minutes of “The End.” (For all my fellow non-math majors out there, that means two songs comprised nearly 40 percent of their set.)
I don’t think I’m breaking any news when I say that parts of the performance were overly indulgent because I imagine that’s precisely what fans of the band love about them. (And I’m happy the disc presents some of the songs in their overlong glory; trimming a live Doors performance just feels wrong.) Still, I much preferred the abbreviated songs that tended to blend into one another. It’s almost as if Morrison had musical ADD; he’d start singing a song, then a thought would occur to him and he’d segue into a different tune.
At times, it’s not always clear if Morrison is aware he’s performing in one of the world’s most famous venues…and then he burps into the microphone and cracks a smile. However, the fact that the Lizard King often appears as if he’s put himself in a trance makes it challenging to connect with him as a live performer (at least if you’re only watching him on TV). The show was filmed with fewer than a handful of cameras — with medium shots of the band on stage and close-ups of Morrison’s profile dominating the screen time — which doesn’t exactly make the home video presentation more dynamic.
As for the music itself, I’ll get into the technical side of things in the audio section. I’ll just say that I admired the rawness of Morrison’s voice and the way he wasn’t afraid to let it go into a rasp. Standout tunes are hard to pick because so many of them flowed into one another, but I enjoyed the thumping “When the Music’s Over”, the freakout that is “A Little Game”, the humor Morrison snuck into “The Unknown Soldier.” I also admired the epic scope of show closer “The End”, and I wasn’t surprised to see the crowd roar to life when he started “Light My Fire.” (And even then, a buzz kill of a security guard hilariously takes away an audience member’s sparkler.)
To be fair, The Doors aren’t exactly my cup of tea. (Heck, I don’t even really like tea, so we’ll instead say, “The Doors aren’t exactly my glass of milk.”) I’ll admit to being intrigued by the strange, undeniable charisma oozing from Morrison, but even that wears off after a few songs. In short, the Hollywood Bowl performance captures The Doors perfectly: some of it is brilliant, some more it is drivel, but a lot of it is completely hypnotic and intoxicating.
1. Show Start/Intro
2. When the Music’s Over
3. Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)
4. Back Door Man
5. Five to One
6. Back Door Man (Reprise)
7. The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)
8. Hello, I Love You
9. Moonlight Drive
10. Horse Latitudes
11. A Little Game
12. The Hill Dwellers
13. Spanish Caravan
14. Hey, What Would You Guys Like to Hear? (Not a song, but this quick interaction between Morrison and the crowd earned its own chapter on this disc.)
15. Wake Up!
16. Light My Fire
17. Light My Fire (Segue)
18. The Unknown Soldier
19. The End (Segue)
20. The End
The Doors: Live at the Bowl ’68 is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 32 mbps. The video presentation of this concert deserves a triumphant slow clap for, according to the special features, taking a full screen image and transforming it to widescreen without any visible “stretch” marks. The black levels are also spot-on and a vast improvement over the original footage. The close-ups of Morrison’s shaggy profile are also surprisingly clear and detailed.
The bad news is there appear to be obvious spots where DNR was used quite liberally. On top of that, the wide shots of the band are noticeably blurrier and appear more washed out than the close-ups. Overall, this was an impressive restoration, but there was still room for improvement.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track engulfs you in the wall of sound from the concert, with Densmore’s drums and Manzarek’s signature keyboards/organ-ic vibe standing out. The vocals are also as clear as can be when you consider Morrison was known to slur or mumble his words. The track features really good balance overall, but the real coup is the way sound mixer Bruce Botnick seamlessly integrated vocals from other live performances because Morrison’s mic had cut out a few times during the Hollywood Bowl concert. If I hadn’t seen Botnick demonstrate this process in the special features, I would’ve never known it happened. You also have the option of listening to the show with an LPCM Stereo track.
The three docs are presented in high definition, while the three bonus tracks appear in standard definition.
Echoes from the Bowl: (20:18) A look at the architecture and history of the Hollywood Bowl as well as the diverse artists who have performed at the famed venue. Dick Clark started rock and roll revues at the Bowl in 1958 and opened the door for other rock acts. (At one point, it had been considered taboo to have non-classical singer Frank Sinatra perform with a full orchestra at the Bowl.) Each of the surviving band members admit to being in awe of the venue.
You Had to Be There: (19:08) Sound mixer Bruce Botnick talks about the bigger-than-usual sound he brought to this concert and slyly states, “If you can remember, you weren’t there. I was there, and I can’t remember.” This is the part when Densmore casually mentions that Morrison was on acid and forgot they were being filmed. The doc mostly covers the technical aspects of filming this show. We also learn the opening acts on that day were Steppenwolf and the Chambers Brothers, with the latter duo making an appearance.
Reworking The Doors: (13:51) This doc covers the process of re-editing and restoring the original footage for this release. Band members also point out that the concert film captures rarities like the debut of the complete version of “Spanish Caravan” and a new take on “Hello, I Love You.” This is also where we get to see Botnick work his Pro Tools magic.
Bonus Tracks: Includes three live performances from The Doors: “Wild Child” (2:52) from The Smothers Brothers Show, “Light my Fire” (3:08) from The Jonathan Winters Show and the “Gloria” (3:31) music video. The “Light My Fire” performance includes some unfortunate, psychedelic effects.
The Doors: Live at the Bowl ’68 is billed as the band’s “best performance ever captured on film” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The special features show you the work that went into making this seminal concert look as good as possible and puts the show in its proper historical context. (The Hollywood Bowl gig was so important that The Doors [insert gasp] rehearsed!) The informative bonus material alone bumps this up a half step.
That being said, I doubt this disc will convert non-fans or earn new ones. On the other hand, this is an absolute treasure trove for people who never stopped rocking out to The Doors.