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Wit, Gravitas, and rock & roll

Cavett set's a fascinating time capsule

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From 1969 to 1975, Dick Cavett's late night show was the hippest, wittiest and smartest program on television. Although his ratings were mediocre, it wasn't for a lack of fans under 30 or anyone else hungry for something beyond the mindless movie plugs and chatter of mainstream talk shows. Cavett was a particular favorite of music lovers in those pre-MTV days; he always invited the performers to join in the conversation after they sang, unlike The Tonight Show at that time. Needless to say, rock musicians preferred to be on Cavett where they'd get some respect.

Shout! Factory worked with Cavett to compile a series of "best of" boxsets and the first one, Rock Icons, is a treat. The 3-DVD set features some of the late-60s/early-70s' best rock musicians and offers a glimpse into the era's cultural zeitgeist of refreshing honesty mixed at times with almost alarming naivete.

Highlights abound on these discs. Janis Joplin, who is featured in three shows on her own separate disc, belts her heart out and then shoots the breeze with Cavett and other guests. Joplin is part of a couple of memorable, surreal moments. In one show, she and Raquel Welch (in full-bore sex kitten mode) -- two women who could hardly have been more different -- casually compare notes and chat about fame. In another, she talks about panty girdles with a spooky-looking Gloria Swanson.

The most fascinating show in this set took place the day after the Woodstock festival. The atmosphere, even recorded and watched 36 years later, is electric from leftover festival energy. Jefferson Airplane is at its screaming, revolutionary way-before-sellout best (and somehow getting the lyrics "up against the wall, motherfucker" past the screeners); a radiant Joni Mitchell's five songs from her Ladies of the Canyon period are lithe, fluid and powerful; and Stephen Stills and David Crosby, a day after their first performance as part of CSN, are a time capsule unto themselves, particularly Crosby who is in full early, trippy, antsy, California rocker mode.

Stevie Wonder appears on one show, debuting "Signed, Sealed and Delivered." He was growing in independence, on the cusp of making his huge early-70s artistic leaps and it's an eye-opener seeing the creativity practically oozing out of him. Not so with Sly Stone, who rocks the house but then is so ripped he forgets at first to go over and talk with Cavett and then completely baffles everyone with a funny but spacey, disconnected stoner rap that goes nowhere.

David Bowie, in an energetic, edgy performance, sings "Young Americans" publicly for the first time (with, among others, the late Luther Vandross backing him up), then squirms nervously and giggles through his interview. At the time, he was between stage personas and seems to struggle with figuring out who he wants to be while talking to Cavett.

George Harrison is earnest but funny, plugging the Concert for Bangladesh and talking about the tragic famines in that country, then jumping quickly out of his seat when Cavett tells him it's where Yoko had sat during her and John Lennon's last appearance on the show. (A separate set of John Lennon appearances on Cavett will be released later.)

In other shows, Cavett hosts a fired up Paul Simon, who does four songs, including two with the Jessy Dixon singers; and conducts a riveting interview with Mick Jagger just before the Stones are set to go on stage at Madison Square Garden.

Cavett himself is also a star of the set. He introduces each show and there's a sizeable interview with him, including the priceless story of his day out with Joplin to see Easy Rider, then to the Village for tie-dye (which he'd never seen), and ending up incongruously at Sardi's. But beyond the backstage stories, it's Cavett's interactions with his guests -- alternately insightful, uneasy, clever, too-clever, playful and overly serious (although that was partly the era talking) -- that provide the human moments that raise this box set far above the level of a mere greatest hits collection.

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