If you were to poll random people on the street and ask them to name as many major American music festivals that took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s as they possibly could, you’d probably hear Woodstock cited more often than not, and if you were in a particularly hip area, you might find a handful of folks who’d throw the Monterey Pop Festival into the mix. Outside of the state of Georgia, however, the odds would almost certainly fall to between “slim” and “none” that anyone would ever utter the words “Atlanta International Pop Festival.”
The Atlanta International Pop Festival was only held twice – first in 1969, and then again the following year – and on neither occasion did it actually take place in Atlanta, although the inaugural event did take place in Hampton, Georgia, which at 20 miles outside of the state capital was apparently still deemed close enough to serve as the home of the Atlanta International Raceway, so fair enough. In 1970, however, the festival was held in a soybean field in Byron, Georgia, a full 90 miles away from Atlanta. But that probably doesn’t have anything to do with why most people aren’t familiar with it.
No, it’s more likely to do with the fact that, unlike Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, relatively few audio recordings of performances from the Atlanta International Pop Festival have ever made the rounds, and until relatively recently, only a limited amount of video footage had ever emerged.
Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church - which airs on Showtime throughout September - is, as one might reasonably suspect from the inclusion of his name in the title, a documentary structured around Hendrix’s performance at the 1970 festival, and if you’re wondering why it’s only just coming out now, there’s an explanation for that: the footage has been sitting in a barn. (We didn’t say it was a good explanation.) Why has it been sitting there? Because director Steve Rash – yes, the man who went on to helm The Buddy Holly Story – tried and failed to find anyone willing to give him a deal to take the footage and make it into a proper concert film.
The fact that no one wanted to fund the release of previously-unseen Hendrix footage is astounding enough, but when you consider that Rash also had footage of the Allman Brothers, B.B. King, Grand Funk Railroad, Johnny Winter, Mott the Hoople, Mountain, Spirit, Rare Earth, Ten Years After, and more than a dozen others, it turns from astounding to absurd. Rash has since constructed his own concert documentary, but given the state of music licensing nowadays, Hotlanta: The Great Lost Rock Festival may never receive a proper release.
That’s why it’s such a blessing for rock historians - both of the professional and amateur variety - that Electric Church doesn’t just take the easy way out and simply deliver Hendrix’s July 4, 1970 concert to the masses. It actually takes the time to tell the tale of the second and final Atlanta International Pop Festival…and, oh, what a tale it is. Truth be told, even if you set aside the interview contributions from everyone from Kirk Hammett to Paul McCartney gushing about the genius of Hendrix, what he brought to rock ‘n’ roll as a guitarist, and how tremendous a legacy he left behind, you’d still be left with a sometimes funny, sometimes depressing, but always fascinating film.
Director John McDermott uses new interviews and archival footage to set the historical stage for those who might not be up on what the racial atmosphere was like in Atlanta in 1970, introducing viewers to Governor Lester Maddox and detailing why he was so up in arms about the idea of the festival taking place. In addition, McDermott makes a concerted effort to explore what sort of effect the arrival of anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 has on a town that generally maintains a population of about 1/100th of that. Indeed, some of the most interesting material comes from present-day interviews with folks who lived in Byron when the festival took place as they reminiscence about the experience of living through it themselves and how their fellow townsfolk took to the crazy, sexy rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans going on in their neck of the woods. Rest assured, no one will reach the end of Electric Church without understanding exactly why the second Atlanta International Pop Festival was the last Atlanta International Pop Festival.
Ah, but what of Hendrix? Fans of the legendary guitarist will certainly not walk away disappointed with his performance, in which he delivers a set list which is effectively a greatest-hits collection. He opens with “Fire,” turns in scorching versions of - among other songs - “All Along the Watchtower,” “Foxy Lady,” “Purple Haze,” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” before ending the set proper. When he returns for the encore, not only does he offer up “Stone Free” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” but there are fireworks going off overhead as he’s shredding. Granted, the quality of the footage isn’t exactly HD, but just being able to see it at all is - no pun intended - an experience.
Just don’t forget Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church is about more than the man mentioned in its title. Even if you’re ambivalent about Hendrix and his music, as long as you’re interested in rock history, you’ll be consistently entertained and often enthralled.