Mar 10, 2015

May 11, 1969: Aztec Bowl, San Diego State University


Five prominent rock acts - booked by Hedgecock-Piering Ltd. of San Francisco and co-sponsored by the Cultural Arts Board - and a crowd of sun- and music-lovers that probably reached 10,000 at its peak did their assorted things Sunday in Aztec Bowl.
The scene was loose. As publicized beforehand, it turned out to be a giant picnic with rock accompaniment. The casual atmosphere allowed good communication between performers and audience - a very deep empathy, though several of the performers misused the opportunity and in effect cheapened the relationship.
At any rate, Hedgecock-Piering's obvious concern for the comfort of artist and audience alike is a welcome change from the policies of San Diego's leading rock entrepreneur, James C. Pagni.
Nevertheless, the Hedgecock-Piering approach has its own very serious defects. The practice of bringing several big-name groups together and letting them all use their own equipment makes for tediously long waits between performances. This wasn't as bad in the sun, though, as it had been during the Butterfield concert in Peterson Gym the night of March 8.
In addition to the music, the sponsors offered the wares and services of between 40 and 50 local artists and craftsmen. Beads, earrings, footwear, painting, engravings and pottery were sold in colorful booths. The flower people seemed to dig it, and the middle-class suburban freaks (resplendent in our bermudas and Gallenkamp sandals) managed to stay cool.

I must first voice my protest that Hedgecock-Piering did not release to the press the names of the musicians in Tarantula, the first group on the bill. The fact that it's a new group may have something to do with that.
It definitely has something to do with the unevenness, the alternating excellence and blandness of its performance. Tarantula's instrumental work was generally good and varied. (The lead singer plays tenor sax, flute and drums; the guitarist and organist sing; the bassist doubles on drums; and the regular drummer is solid.)
The organist is by far the best soloist; his lines were consistently fresh and inventive. The guitarist is only adequate, and the bassist is weak.
The tenorman can't seem to decide whether he wants the screaming abrasion Tim Cains uses with the Sons of Champlain, or the pinched, oboe-like tone John Coltrane got on soprano sax.
Vocally, Tarantula is derivative. The ternorman uses the soap-opera eroticism and forced erotic excitement of Jim Morrison. The guitarist, however, has a fresher, country sound.

Lee Michaels, up next, put on half of a two-man display of pretentiousness and playing to the gallery.
Michaels plays organ, very loud, somewhere in between Jimmy Smith (single-note lines) and Earl Grant (the chord voicings). His periodic requests that the voice mike be turned up suggested that he takes his singing seriously. It's a mistake, since it's as calculated in phrasing as his organ breaks.
Michaels had hardly finished the first chorus of his first tune when he turned the set over to his drummer. The drummer played a show-biz solo in a Buddy Rich mood without Buddy Rich technique - sticked cadences built up in speed and loudness; powerful, almost ominous bass drum throbs with solo lines built on them; the same thing with the hands on the skins, after very dramatically throwing the sticks away. It was a big finish, bringing the crowd to its feet clapping in time with a roll on the bass pedal.
It had nothing to do with music, of course, but neither did Michaels. I must admit that the duo builds nicely to overwhelming climaxes. However, it's much too obviously designed to turn on the crowd the quickest way possible.

The Santana Blues Band was in an interesting predicament on this program. It's not really a rock group - and certainly not a blues band - despite the obligatory distorted, self-consciously "psychedelic" guitar of Carlos Santana. It's really a heavily amplified Latin-jazz group. They even played Willie Bobo's "Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fried." (I was waiting for "Watermelon Man." But they didn't come through.)
All the singing (by Santana and Rolie) was feeble. So it was up to the percussion. Drummer Bob Livingstone wisely met the conga players' challenge for audience attention by playing his solo on rims, hi-hat, and cymbal bells. This is obviously a drummers' band, and it's going to take a heavier soloist than Santana (and maybe on a different instrument) to successfully compete with them.

The Grateful Dead came on next, and Canned Heat closed the show. For this review, however, I'm going to reverse that order, because I like to close with good things.
I don't like people who play the blues condescendingly. Maybe Canned Heat doesn't play them that way, but Bob Hite sure sings them (and talks, dances, and sweats them) that way.
It's very difficult to describe Hite's antics on stage except by suggesting the reader try to imagine Al Hirt coming on like James Brown. Hite took off his shirt, rapped with the audience (who after six hours, ate it up), and kissed babies brought to the stage.
Perhaps it's irrelevant that he's incoherent as a blues singer. His harmonica is fairly good, but he only played it once, contenting himself the rest of the time to being chief soul-man and Gospel social director.
Al Wilson's harmonica was good, although he went badly out of tune on a long, slow blues. His rhythm guitar almost saved the set a couple of times, but psychedelian Henry Vestine was adept at preventing it from happening.
Vestine played ultra-distorted rock guitar, seething with lashing storms of feedback almost to the point of mindlessness. He seemed to find it impossible not to play double time on every slow tune. If Vestine has any idea that he's still playing the blues, he better get on back to B.B. King, listen harder this time, and learn some things - like use of space, use of silences, and the fact that blues guitar releases pain, rather than causing it.
Drummer Adolfo de la Parra played a good, long solo (he's an excellent technician) on the group's 40-minute-plus "Refried Boogie" routine, but its relevance to the tune was obscured by the excursions of Vestine and bassist Larry Taylor into willful ugliness which preceded it.

Put me down, jazz refugee that I am, for rock with rhythmic freshness, with melodic imagination, with sensitive group interplay, and with joyful spontaneity. Coming on before Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead displayed just these things. The Dead took the place apart. Canned Heat shouldn't have been allowed on stage. (Personal opinion, of course.)
Starting soft and subtle, Garcia singing a folkish lyric; cymbals, quiet organ. Builds intensity, good Garcia fills behind his vocal.
Drummers Micky Hart and Bill Kreutzman - eight limbs, one mind. One plays the pulse, the other accents. Into duet; cuts Garcia loose and wailing on guitar. Bass (Phil Lesh) is FLYING! Lesh, Weir and Garcia into collective improvisation.
Eases to delicate guitar duet...builds...builds...
BUILDS to psychedelic barrage in which you can HEAR EVERY INSTRUMENT CONTRIBUTING instead of a mish-mash of sound. Garcia playing sitar licks above bridge of guitar.
Back into the blues. Pig-Pen, who has been playing badly-miked congas and looking out of it, gets into it. Dirty harmonica, and into "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl." Garcia and Lesh leaping and burning, Pig-Pen low-down and moaning. Get them blues.
Garcia announces Santana's drummers want to sit in. Percussion ensemble - two drummers, congas, tambourines, maracas, the stage jumps, the Dead are raising the dead!
Hart and Kreutzman really into it - a stageful of drummers stops playing and DIGS! Pig-Pen rides the pulse, comes in, just voice and drums, with "Turn On Your Love-Light!" Garcia dancing; organist Tom Constanten laying in that good stuff. Pig-Pen preaching to that good woman! Prayer meetin' in Aztec Bowl!
Long live the Grateful Dead. Also Hedgecock-Piering, Ltd!
A suggestion: take it back to the roots. Next time you come to San Diego, bring back the Dead. Also bring B.B. King, and let him head the bill. Show the people where all that good stuff comes from!

(by Bob Melton, from the Daily Aztec, 13 May 1969)  (page 5) (radio broadcast) (Morning Dew)


Thanks to Volkmar Rupp.


  1. The May 7 issue of the Daily Aztec paper announced the show:


    The Aztec Bowl will "rock out" with sound from noon to dusk this Sunday with five groups from Hedgecock-Piering Ltd.from San Francisco.
    Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, Lee Michaels, Tarantula, and Santana will play for students and the public as part of a program sponsored by the Cultural Arts Board of San Diego State.
    A Renaissance Fair featuring 50 artists and craftsmen from the San Diego area is also set for Sunday in the Bowl.
    Tony Berardini, a graduate of State and currently a graduate student of business at San Francisco State, is in San Diego this weekend organizing the concert for Hedgecock-Piering.
    Berardini said, "Students at State want rock music concerts. Sixty-seven percent of the attendance at the Paul Butterfield concert March 8 were State students. We encourage everyone to come to the Bowl Sunday, bring their babies, pets, wear costumes, and enjoy the rock music."
    Tickets for the concert are on sale in Aztec Center for $2.50 for students and $3.50 for non-students.

    (A similar announcement ran in the May 9 issue.)

  2. The Dead's show was broadcast on KPRI 106.5 in San Diego. (I don't know if any of the other bands were broadcast; as far as I know no tapes circulate of their sets.) Our tape of the show comes from the broadcast and is pretty low-quality with some cuts. (For instance, it doesn't have Garcia's announcement that Santana's drummers are going to sit in, which the review mentions.) If there's a Bear-recorded tape in the Vault, it doesn't circulate, but it would be nice to have an upgrade of this show.
    (The broadcast tape also circulated as May 29, the Robertson Gym show in Santa Barbara, which confused people for many years. Coincidentally, Lee Michaels also opened for the Dead at that show.)
    We also have a short, partial film clip of the start of the Dead's show. (An edited version is currently up on youtube.) It's too bad there isn't film of the Santana drummers onstage with the Dead in the Alligator jam>Lovelight finale.

    This student review ran in the university paper, and covers the full concert. (The column was labeled "Grateful Deadlines.") The reviewer is a bit pretentious, but very knowledgeable about music - he says he's into jazz, and he is particularly into drums (going into detail about the drummers for each band), making me wonder if he played drums himself. He pays attention to each of the players in the bands, though, and has an analytical ear.
    Clearly the Dead were the stars of the show for him; he didn't like any of the other bands very much. (Santana is almost totally dismissed.) It's kind of funny that when he reaches the Dead point of the review, he doesn't even write organized sentences anymore, but apparently just prints his raw show notes to convey his excitement.
    The Dead opened with Morning Dew. The reviewer was unfamiliar with the other songs except for the blues covers, so perhaps he hadn't heard Anthem of the Sun. He was definitely impressed by Pigpen (which is notable since he didn't like any of the other singers at the show, and since he seems to be a devotee of "authentic" blues). This is one of many reviews that compares Lovelight to a "prayer meeting" - not something that comes off well on tape, perhaps, but it must have been very evident at the shows, for so many reviewers to mention it that way.

    1. I seem to recall that someone had a master reel of this that they were trying to sell to the GD, but asking more than the market could bear (which is probably not much).

  3. Reviewer Bob Melton recalled this show again in the record-reviews section of the 11/20/70 Daily Aztec, reviewing Santana's new album Abraxas. He started the review off saying he hadn't liked Santana when he saw them at the May '69 show:
    "The group [was] superficially exciting rhythmically but totally lacking in both varied material and in interesting soloists. I think I particularly jumped on guitarist Carlos Santana for playing the same phrase to start and end every solo...
    I was being very haughty and very much the sophisticated jazz fan that Sunday afternoon, convinced that all this rock was just noise and that the only reason I was present was to hear and see Jerry Garcia and the Dead teach all the other clods what improvisation was all about.
    And I recall thinking Santana was really horrible for playing that same pair of notes for twenty minutes while the conga drummer and the timbales man, Mike Carabello and Chepito Areas, drove the audience into a frenzy. I recall thinking Santana only earned his place on stage when Carabello and Areas sat in with the Dead on a marathon version of 'Turn On Your Lovelight.'"

    But he changed his mind about Santana after Woodstock; and hearing Abraxas, he decided the band had grown more versatile and Santana had greatly improved: "none of the selections of Abraxas is less than good, and several spots are stunning... Carlos Santana's guitar is positivey charismatic here - he plays phrases that are both powerful and pretty with a fairly distorted tone (the influence of Jerry Garcia is clear)." (p.9)

  4. A couple Archive reviewers attended the show:
    "I certainly 'got' Santana...they were mind-boggling -- but the Dead set left me unimpressed."
    "Seeing these bands one after another was one of the highlights of my life. But I will say this, the concert was all day the time the Dead played Lovelight (and I seem to remember that the show was on a Sunday), most of the students, who made up the bulk of the show goers, were gone."

    Canned Heat, the headliner, was still to follow so I'm not sure that many people would have left early. A couple other witnesses recall the Dead/Santana jam as "amazing" and "a highlight," and Santana would have been new & unfamiliar to the San Diego crowd. (One person remembers, "The Dead sort of joined Santana as they finished and Santana members gradually left until it was just The Dead" - which seems to be memory's embellishment.)
    But the Dead faced a more mixed reception when playing these multi-band festival dates than when they played shows to their own fans. Three months later at Woodstock, Santana would become a star, and the Dead would go splat like bugs on a windshield. The lesser-known Aztec Bowl show was a much better example of the Dead playing a fiery set in a festival setting (even if much of the crowd did walk out).