Recorded on 9/13/69 at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium, D.A. Pennebaker's filmed document of that day's Rock 'n' Roll Revival Festival gives posterity less than 60 minutes of what was supposedly a 12-hour event. Featuring an impressive roster of rock 'n' roll's early greats, as well as John Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band in their only documented performance, the resultant "Sweet Toronto" is most assuredly another feather in Pennebaker's cap, if not nearly as impressive as his "Don't Look Back" or "Monterey Pop." The director has given his film a look similar to that of "Monterey Pop," with numerous shots of the wildly boogying crowd of 20,000 and intimate close-ups of the performers; a pity, though, that the length of the film is so short and the tunes showcased somewhat erratic. As for the music itself, those early rock 'n' roll greats are only given one song apiece to demonstrate their stuff. Bo Diddley opens things with a wildly raucous, fast-stepping, longish version of, uh, "Bo Diddley." The Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, next pounds out a very high-energy rendition of Lieber & Stoller's "Hound Dog." Chuck Berry is his usual duckwalking, athletic self, his "Johnny B. Goode" resulting in a well-deserved standing ovation. As night descends on the stadium, Little Richard appears, bedecked in a mirrored jacket, to provide a short but intense rendition of "Lucille." And then Lennon, in his first live appearance since the legendary 8/29/66 Fab 4 show at Candlestick Park, comes out with his Plastic Ono Band. Sporting long hair and beard, granny glasses and white suit (in other words, looking exactly as he soon would on the cover of "Abbey Road"), he is joined by his new bride Yoko on vocals, Klaus Voormann on bass, Alan White on drums and some dude named Eric Clapton on guitar. One would have imagined that Lennon would be eager to play after such a lengthy hiatus, but strangely enough, his set consists of only eight songs.
First up, the Carl Perkins classic "Blue Suede Shoes," featuring some wicked picking by Eric. Then, three songs that had been recorded by the Beatles: a pretty tough little version of "Money," a short but impressive "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" and, from the "White Album," "Yer Blues," highlighted by some surprisingly great guitar work from John himself. The soon-to-be-released single "Cold Turkey" is up next, during which Yoko caterwauls like a constipated banshee, and a nicely strummed "Give Peace a Chance" follows. The final two songs of the set are the ones that have proved the most problematic over the years for most listeners. On "Don't Worry, Kyoto (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)," John and Eric get into a deep groove while Yoko yodels and screams most impressively, while on "John, John (Let's Hope for Peace)," Yoko engages in even more grating primal scream therapy (of the type that Dr. Arthur Janov would have approved of) while Clapton and Lennon coax some bizarre feedback from their instruments. Equal parts hilarious, excruciating and awesome, this longest number of the set--equivalent, I suppose, to the Grateful Dead's later "Space" segments--brings the festival to a literally screeching halt. I half expected the lights to come up at that point to reveal a completely cleared-out stadium (that WOULD have been pretty funny, right?), but as the sound of Lennon's still feedbacking guitar fades, so does Pennebaker's film itself. In all, a too-short but nevertheless essential glimpse at this pivotal moment in Lennon's career. My advice: Equip yourself with some earplugs and enjoy!
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