Mar 2, 2018

March 15-17, 1968: Carousel Ballroom

The Carousel, San Francisco

The cream of San Francisco rock - the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead - got together here for the first time in many months. Following a three-month Pacific Northwest tour, the Dead and the Airplane had returned as partners to open their own ballroom, the Carousel, in competition with Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium and Chet Helms' Avalon Ballroom.
The Dead had not played for either Graham or Helms in nearly a year, because they opposed the way most dance-concerts are conducted.
Both bands did two sets, each lasting more than an hour. Though the Airplane has by far the biggest national reputation, the Dead proved to be the stronger musicians.

Balin, in the group's early days, nearly carried the Airplane on the strength of his powerful vocals. And though the repertoire now is structured around the exceptionally versatile voice of Miss Slick, there are signs that this approach is wearing a bit thin.
Solos are longer than ever before, limiting the role of the lyrics, but the quality of playing has improved markedly. Casady is one of the finest bass players in rock - perhaps the finest - and his solos will surely wake up other groups to the fact that the bass can be more than just decoration for the lead guitar.
On one song, Casady played acoustic guitar and Balin played bass, an indication that the group is going in for more versatility.

But it was the Dead's second set that made the evening particularly important. It was one of the best sets the group has ever done in this city, and the light show, by underground filmmaker Ben Van Meter, caught the rhythm perfectly, turning the event into a total sensory experience.
In the first set, the Dead had indicated it was into something quite different from what it was doing even six months ago. At that time it was, like the Airplane, still dependent on lyrics as the basic ingredients of its songs.
Now it is the music that is important. It's more jazz than rock and aims at a peak experience instead of just a good time. On one song, McKernan, who also does fine vocals on Junior Wells' Good Mornin', Little Schoolgirl, launched into a kind of formless Joycean chant. As another forceful sound, it complemented the instruments.
The Dead has added a second drummer, Micky Hart, son of drummer Roy Hart, and new worlds of dynamics have opened up. Hart joined several months ago in New York. Sommers still seems to carry the weight in the drum solos, but Hart has excellent control.
Garcia is one of the unacknowledged greats of the rock guitar. He can make it sound like a horn and always plays as if entranced, his shaggy head wagging, his fingers fretting and picking as if they had a life of their own.
The set ended with fireworks and smoke-bombs that, in the hands of most groups, usually come off as a cheap gimmick. Not this time. Solos had built crescendo upon crescendo like layers in a foundation; each note had been wrung of the last drop of emotion. Something had to explode, and it did - literally. There followed a brief and incongruous bidding of goodnight, sung by the whole group in choir-boy fashion.
The Dead again proved that it is probably the tightest band in rock, despite the fact that there is now more improvising in its playing than ever before.

(by Geoffrey Link, from Down Beat, 27 June 1968)


  1. A great review of a Carousel show. A few small factual errors (especially concerning Mickey Hart), but they're trivial.
    Since the reviewer mentions Schoolgirl and Bid You Goodnight, I'm guessing he went to the show on March 16, but I can't be sure, it could have been the nights before or after. I'm intrigued by Pigpen's "formless Joycean chant" which would probably be someplace in Caution.
    He mentions that each band did two hour-plus sets - these were probably staggered as was the custom at the time, so the show would have gone Airplane-Dead-Airplane-Dead.

    Link seems to have seen the Dead in '67 too, and notes how different their set is from "even six months ago," with more improvising. "The tightest band in rock" is a pretty strong statement from a jazz reviewer - he calls them "more jazz than rock!" He has praise for the whole group and the double-drumming but is especially impressed by Garcia; and they outshine the Airplane, who have also "improved markedly."
    This may be the earliest mention of fireworks & smoke-bombs, which I didn't know the Dead had in their stage act that early. Combined with the light show, they turned the evening into an explosive "total sensory experience."

    The Dead did try to avoid playing the other San Francisco ballrooms for a long time - other than benefits, they didn't play the Avalon between March 1967 & October 1968, or the Fillmore after May 1967. But alternate venues didn't last, and after the Avalon closed it was back to Helms & Graham.

  2. Article dated June 27, 1968. Why do you think he'd review a show from 3 months earlier? I think he's reviewing 6/7 thru 9/68. The two songs he mentions were very common at that point with 3/16/68 being the first We Bid You Goodnight that we know of.

    1. There are a few reasons I'm certain the review is from March:

      - Down Beat, though a biweekly magazine at the time, typically had a two-month time lag in its reviews. For instance, the Monterey Pop Festival was reviewed in the 8/10/67 issue; and a show I'll post later appeared in an issue over two months after it was played. It would be unusual speed for a June show to appear in an issue less than three weeks later.
      - The review mentions that these are the Dead's first shows with the Airplane in many months, and that they're opening the Carousel after a tour of the northwest. This news applies well to March, but would be quite out-of-date by June. (It's also said that Mickey Hart joined "several months ago.")
      - The review also mentions the light show by Ben Van Meter, whose North American Ibis Alchemical Co. is listed on the March poster. The light show in the the June shows was done by Glenn McKay.

      The review was evidently written right after the show - why it wasn't run til the June 27 issue, now that's a question for the Down Beat editors! But that was primarily a jazz magazine, so I suspect the editors didn't feel much need to include a rock-show review in any timely manner, as long as they had plenty of jazz reviews to fill the space.

      Another example: there's a Down Beat issue that happens to be available online, from Sept. 19, 1968, which reviews the Kaleidoscope/Youngbloods/Steve Miller Band show at the Carousel at length. The show was in MAY 1968, five months earlier, but there was no indication that the Carousel had closed since then! (p.28)

      This review goes for several pages and is well worth reading. It begins:
      "In operation only about a year [sic], the Carousel is one of the newer of the large psychedelic total-environment dancehalls the San Francisco scene has spawned. It also is one of the handsomer, boasting a number of comforts that the large, better-known rock halls do not possess: a decent, well-appointed restaurant adjoins the hall and offers moderately priced meals, a large snack bar dispenses the more usual fare, and there is a seating area where one may take a respite from the hectic dance floor activities. Too, there is the usual top-notch light show that one has almost come to take for granted, this one by the North American Ibis Alchemical Co. And the hall books top groups, as this recent billing of three popular bands demonstrated..."

  3. OK, that all makes sense. Wasn't 3/15/68 was the Grand Reopening of the Carousel?

  4. Ralph Gleason wrote about these Carousel shows in one magazine column:

    "Promoters traditionally have labored to avoid putting on a last-minute, hurry-up event wherein they had only a few days in which to inform the public. History says you have to have a really hot attraction to get away with this.
    Another cardinal rule is not to confuse your audience with contradictory or ambiguous statements.
    Both these rules were violated last month by the new series of dances at the Carousel Ballroom. The announcement of the first weekend dance was not made until the Wednesday before, and there was considerable confusion about prices and attractions for the Sunday night show.
    Nevertheless, the hall was packed on the first Friday and Saturday and it is a tribute to the strength of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead that this is so.
    The new series also had another asset. The Carousel is by far the best hall in San Francisco for rock groups in almost every imaginable way.
    The appearance of the Airplane and the Dead ran directly into the U.S. debut of the new British group, Traffic, which flew from London to open that weekend at the Fillmore-Winterland fresh from the publicity of its first album and the underground reputation generated by the British LP. In addition the Avalon had a unique bill with veteran blues singer Son House, jazzman John Handy, and the new Blood, Sweat & Tears group.
    So the Airplane and the Dead's success at the Carousel is doubly impressive."

    He also said Traffic was "not that overwhelming in its the context of San Francisco... The Cream was. I found them one of the very best of all rock bands and a combination of extraordinary musicianship, good voices, and outstanding songs."
    (Ralph Gleason, "Like a Rolling Stone" column, Jazz & Pop, May 1968)

    I would imagine he wrote more at length in his Chronicle articles.