Live at the Aquarius Theatre: The First Performance

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When one argues the relative merits of Jim Morrison the conversation invariably turns on the hoariest of the, um, whore: “The End”-generated oedipal hooey, wee-wee wiggling in Miami, a bloated bathtub full
of Parisian Jim, etc. In order to tell the alternate story of the Doors — the concert tale — the three surviving members established their own Internet-only label, Bright Midnight, hooked up with Rhino’s Internet subsidy
Rhino Handmade (www.rhinohandmade.com) for marketing and distribution, and quietly began opening the archives. Bright Midnight’s latest bout of trove-trawling has yielded 3 1/2 hours’ worth of Doors that’s as musically muscular and exciting as just about any live album you’d care to name.

This pair of two-CD sets chronicles the early and late shows of July 21, 1969 at L.A.’s Aquarius Theatre. (They were being recorded by Elektra for a proposed live album; the resulting Absolutely Live was a compilation of various concerts and included only three Aquarius numbers.)

Not long before was Morrison’s Miami “performance” where, it has been reported, the singer’s unveiling led to the Doors being banned across the land. Yet rather than sounding distracted or, worse, angered by their recent travails, the Doors are clearly relaxed and in their element. Guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore perform with the precision of seasoned jazzmen, cueing expertly off one another and off their singer, who himself seems relieved not to be contending with an oversized arena full of media-programmed yahoos wanting him to let his lizard out for a stroll. Morrison is in superb voice throughout the evening, absolutely in control and confident in his ability to pool emotion without resorting to boozy bravado.

Choosing between First Performance and Second Performance is tough. The 90-minute former set is nominally “stronger” with an edginess to it that suggests both band and audience were feeling one another out. Concert opener “Back Door Man,” with its swampy lope and chilling “I’m an old blues man” Morrison mantra, is as visceral as any extant version of the Willie Dixon classic anywhere. “When the Music’s Over” is steely, imposing, so laden with dynamics one readily detects butterfly screams. And a chooglin’ medley of “Mystery Train/Crossroads,” steered by Krieger’s deft slide guitar and livened by Morrison’s lip-smacking relish as he adopts different voices for different segments (“woke up this morning/got the H-bomb on my mind” is rendered hilariously), is an unexpected highlight.

Still, Second Performance runs more than two hours and contains some intriguing songs not performed earlier in the evening. Key among them: a 10-minute version of “Gloria,” “Blue Sunday” and an instrumental take of “Peace Frog” and an absolutely incandescent reading of The Soft Parade’s “Touch Me” which, when freed from the studio version’s over-the-top horn arrangement, reveals itself to be a throbbing, insistent rock powerhouse.

As per all Bright Midnight releases, the sets are handsomely illustrated. Here, concert photos by Morrison’s chum Frank Lisciandro depict the singer as a bearded mountain guru in shades, not some leonine god or leather-trousered Lizard King. Remembrances penned by the three Doors, a reprint of Robert Hilburn’s July 28, 1969 L.A. Times review of the concert and some hugely entertaining technical details and recording trivia from longtime Doors engineer Bruce Botnik are included in the sets’ booklets (liner notes are identical for both), making these essential artifacts for any Doors fan.

More important, the musical incantations conjured herein go lengths toward dispelling cynical street wisdom that at times has favored the tiresome (and wildly inauthentic) No One Here Gets Out Alive version of history. All that’s left to say, then, is — is everybody in? Let the ceremony begin.

E-mail Fred Mills at letters@metrotimes.com.

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