Jul 7, 2015

January 2-4, 1969: Fillmore West, San Francisco


I hope you got back to school early. So you could go to the Fillmore two weeks ago.
It was a magnificent show, probably the best single collection of artists appearing here in the last nine or ten months. Blood, Sweat and Tears. The Grateful Dead. Spirit.
They sound like life styles, which they are. But they’re also, along with the Airplane and the band from Big Pink, the epitome of white American contemporary music.
The three groups seem remarkably similar at first, and it’s difficult to absorb all of them in a single evening. Still, you’ve got to give Graham credit for the programming: Blood, Sweat and Tears, leading to the Dead, followed by Spirit. That’s pretty eerie.
All three are loosely based in white blues-rock-etc., yet all give a definite jazz texture to their music, which is often set in a fairly rigid classical framework.

The improvisations and solos (and each musician in these groups is capable of sustaining interest and excitement throughout his individual riffs) are based upon, and must appear within, the general themes of the group’s music. Things fit.
Yet the conspicuous building and tension within each song – and the set as a whole – rarely becomes formal. The continual re-directing prevents sterility, without ever lapsing into random diddling; the changes work because of these groups’ immense talent and obvious familiarity with each other.
The last time I saw Spirit, they were playing a lot of Coltrane, self-consciously yet quite impressively. They have evolved, have developed their own forms, yet still play with far more freedom than most groups.
They remain a highly eclectic group while continually giving greater importance to electronics. Randy California’s guitar is supposed to be from a Sears catalogue, but all its adapters, amps and assorted freaky gadgets are definitely home-grown.

Blood, Sweat and Tears began as the Al Kooper Experienece. Their first album is quite nice, but Kooper’s presence becomes a bit stifling. It was obvious then that there was a great deal more to the group than this guitarist-gone-organist-gone-producer who never could sing, but he had appeared on both Highway 61 Revisited and “Who Wears Short Shorts,” which is something.
Kooper left to the Columbia Complex (his first solo record for [them] is modestly titled “I Stand Alone”), a few changes were made in the horn section, David Clayton-Thomas was brought down from Canada to sing, and Altoist Fred Lipsius assumed the role of quasi-leader.
They’re really a bitch now, Jim Fielder’s striking bass, Clayton Thomas’ Bobby Bland-like voice, and Dick Halligan’s flute and keyboard work usually stand out. The horns are beautiful; there is no other rock group using so many horns so well.
Some of the BS&T songs are grossly over-arranged. But even when they are, such as with Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi’s “Smiling Phrases,” they manage to bring it off as a comical parody of Broadway show music or as a necessary part of their polished big band performance.

Rumors of the break-up of the Grateful Dead have been floating around for over a year, but the group just keeps adding musicians. First a second drummer, now a full-time organist so Pig Pen can concentrate on his harp and vocals.
They still seem much the same sprawling, joyous family. The music of the Dead is really San Francisco’s down-home sound; it grows increasingly complex, but it still gives off Trips Festival vibrations.
They seem to have recently re-discovered their first album, and last weekend did the always-moving “Morning Dew” and always-boring “Good Morning Little School Girl.” The rest of the set was a delightful build from “Dark Star” to “Turn On Your Lovelight,” interspersed with lots of nice transitions, new tunes, and changing arrangements.  
Bob Wier still jumps up and down, grinning like a perennial 17-year-old, Pig Pen seems to be interested in singing again, and Garcia, Lesh, and the two drummers, remain, along with the Airplane, the finest lead-bass-drum nucleus in the country.
No, don’t worry about the Dead. They’re playing better than ever. They want to give their next record away. Free. If the physical separation of its members ever does come, their music will just go on playing itself for months afterward.
An awesome evening, yet so immediately compelling that many people were dancing again. By the way, Spirit’s from LA, BS&T from New York, and the Dead from 910-A Ashbury Street. That’s the real difference.

(by Peter Thompson, from the Stanford Daily, 13 January 1969) 


Alas, no tape!


  1. "Rumors of the break-up of the Grateful Dead have been floating around for over a year" - other reporters in '68-69 also mentioned this periodically, and it's clear the Dead made their troubles known to the public. For instance, Michael Lydon wrote about the crisis with Weir & Pigpen in his Dead article; Robert Christgau wrote in '69 that "it was reported that they were leaving the band;" Rolling Stone wrote of 9/2/68 that it would be "the last appearance with the [current] personnel;" a 10/26/68 newspaper article noted, "The Grateful Dead due to break up in January, according to Bill Graham;" James Doukas wrote in his book Electric Tibet that he wasn't sure if the Dead would stay together in '69, it looked like they'd break up.
    By the addition of Constanten, things were patched up within the band, but it's clear that at the time, no one was sure whether the Dead would survive to the '70s.
    Thompson makes the prescient comment, "If the physical separation of its members ever does come, their music will just go on playing itself for months afterward."

    Thompson had seen the Dead at the Avalon in October '68, and other times - he says "they seem to have recently re-discovered their first album" (which is odd since they did 'Morning Dew' then too), and notices that Pigpen's back: "Pig Pen seems to be interested in singing again." (Though he's not a fan of 'Schoolgirl.') He's excited by the long 'Dark Star' medley (and not yet able to identify the unreleased 'St Stephen'), and says "they’re playing better than ever."
    I don't know where he heard that the Dead "want to give their next record away," but it's fitting.

  2. Thompson had mentioned his previous Dead show in a rave review of Traffic's new album, saying he "marvelled at the fine Avalon show, featuring Lynn County, one of the area’s more enjoyable experimental groups, and the Grateful Dead, who along with the Airplane, are ridiculously better than any other American rock band."
    (He also dismissed a "nightmarish" Hendrix show at Winterland as "surprisingly dull," disappointed that "Jimi did nothing from his beautiful new album, but put on the familiar show of his top-40 teenie-weenie hits that everyone’s seen before.")
    (Peter Thompson, "Genius of Traffic," Stanford Daily 11/8/68)

    An earlier 1968 Stanford Daily article on folk-rock also gave praise to the Dead:
    "The Grateful Dead, perhaps this country’s leading instrumental rock group, has won its reputation not by finding a convenient niche and remaining there, but by repeatedly demonstrating superb musicianship and improvisation in concerts and recording sessions. The Dead’s recorded version of “Viola Lee Blues” is classic, yet when the group performs the song live there is no attempt to copy the record and give the audience what it expects to hear."
    (Jerry Fogel, "A Folk and Rock Revolution," Stanford Daily 2/9/68)

    So even in '68, the Dead had some astute fans who considered them "ridiculously better than any other American rock band" and "this country’s leading instrumental rock group."