Although the Grateful Dead got their start in the Palo Alto/Menlo Park area, they went a very long time (1967 to 1973) without getting onto a stage together in the mid-peninsula. Although some fantastic musicians did come within striking distance in 1968, I really wanted to see the Dead, and I wanted to see them in one of the ballrooms in San Francisco.
Another group I had become particularly enamored of was UK acoustic quintet the Pentangle. Although I was not to enter a major British folk rock phase until some decades later, the Pentangle’s combination of the acoustic guitar wizardry of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, Jacqui McShee’s exquisitely ethereal vocals, and the jazz influenced rhythm section of standup bassist Danny Thompson and percussionist Tony Cox was unlike anything else on the radio at the time, and I picked up their sophomore release, the double LP Sweet Child, as an import when it first came out at the end of 1968.
When Bill Graham booked these two groups together, along with the horn-heavy San Francisco version of Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet, for a four day weekend at the Fillmore West, I made a sufficiently good case to my parents that they had to let me go to one of the shows. This was a major concession and, as things turned out, quite an imposition on them (they spent a couple of hours caught in Chinese New Year’s traffic), but I have been forever grateful to them for the opportunity. The way we worked it out was that they drove me and my friend Llew up to the city the Saturday night of the run, let us out at Market and Van Ness, and arranged to pick us up in front of the Fillmore West at midnight.
The Fillmore West was located upstairs above the Waters Buick dealership and you entered mid-block up a tall narrow stairway after buying your tickets at the ground level (If I remember correctly, we in fact did pick up our tickets at the door rather than in advance). At the top of the stairs was a long hallway parallel to Market which housed the coat check room where those attending a Sunday night show could pick up free posters for the next week’s show. Just inside the ballroom proper was a refreshment stand that sold cokes and snacks, and, just beyond, the ballroom itself. It was a long, rather narrow room with the stage backing up to the Van Ness Avenue side. At the opposite end was the elevated platform where the light shows worked their magic. Most of the floor was just that, a big wooden dance floor left over from the hall’s earlier incarnations as a big band and Irish dance hall. Along the south wall, opposite the entrance, was a raised area where one could stand and get a good view of the stage, which was a surprisingly low affair that afforded those in the front of the hall an unusually intimate connection with the bands. Near the light show platform in the back were several well worn but cozy sofas. I have been unable to get a precise estimate of the Fillmore West’s capacity, but I would estimate its legal capacity at somewhere just above 1000 people, an incredibly small venue by today’s standards. The funky accoutrements, the light show, and the elbow room afforded by the full-but-not oversold room made for a concert experience that simply could not be duplicated in today’s market. Llew and I found a spot on the floor maybe 1/3 of the way back, which was close enough for me to get some photos, although the combination of low light and the required slow shutter speeds made for some less-than-stellar results.
3/1/69 Photo: M. Parrish
The evening began with a disappointment, as illness caused the slated Sir Douglas Quintet to be a no-show on Saturday (they played at least one of the other nights). In their place was Frumious Bandersnatch, who again delivered a solid set of straight rock and roll. As was the convention up until sometime in 1969, the show’s format called for all three bands to play twice, so the opening set was less than an hour in length.
Next up was the Pentangle. The stage was largely cleared, save for Terry Cox’s modest drum kit, two chairs for the guitarists, and a stool for vocalist McShee. Because of the small size of the Fillmore West, the extremely attentive audience, and the hall’s remarkable sound system, the group’s delicate music came across perfectly. I do not recall the entire set list, but they did draw heavily on Sweet Child, starting, as did the album, with the evocative group composition “Market Song.”
|Jacqui Mcshee and Bert Jansch|
3/1/69 Photo: M. Parrish
The group’s strongest draw was probably guitarists Jansch and Renbourn, both of whom had very successful careers as solo jazz-folk pickers before teaming up in Pentangle. Whether trading solos or weaving together remarkable instrumental harmonies, the pair were ably supported by Cox and Thompson, whose extensive experience in acoustic jazz combos was perfect training for the group’s complex harmonies and time signatures. McShee has one of those high, silky voices that was a welcome counterpart to Renbourn’s gruff pipes and Jansch’s plaintive midrange vocals. Simply a superb group, the Pentangle carried on until 1973, when they disbanded. Today, McShee continues to lead a version of the group, and the original lineup has reunited successfully a couple of times, most notably a 2008 40th Anniversary outing that found them able to successfully recapture past glories. It has been postulated that the gigs with the Pentangle were at least one factor that led the Grateful Dead, eight months later, to begin including a few numbers, and then an entire acoustic set, into many of their 1970 shows. However, the Dead were already experimenting with acoustic guitars onstage, and in fact would use them for the first two songs of their second set later that evening.
|The Grateful Dead 3/1/69|
Photo: M. Parrish
After another short break, Bill Graham announced the headliners with one of his inimitable introductions: “The American Version of the Japanese film Magnificent Seven – the Grateful Dead!” At that point, my chief point of reference for the Dead was Anthem of the Sun, and I was particularly taken with the first side’s swirling psychedelic suite “That’s It for the Other One/New Potato Caboose.” Thus I felt richly rewarded when Jerry Garcia counted out “One, Two, Three, Four!” and led his comrades into a long, intense version of the bulk of that opus, which had actually become a rarity in their concerts by that time.
Those who only saw the Dead in the 90s, 80s, or even 70s might have difficulty envisioning the intensity and aggression that characterized their playing that evening. Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh paired up dramatically at the top and bottom of the music, respectively, with Bob Weir and keyboardist Tom Constanten providing swirling midrange color. From our vantage point, the three standing guitarists and the two drummers were the visual focal point, with Ron “Pigpen” Mckernan and Constanten largely invisible back in the shadows. The aural intensity was mirrored by the onstage stances of the musicians, with Garcia, Lesh, and Weir forming a tight circle as they stretched the instrumental passages of “The Other One” far beyond its length on the album.
|Phil Lesh and Bob Weir 3/1/69|
Photo: M. Parrish
After reaching a dramatic crescendo, the group dialed way back energetically for the slow, mellow “Cryptical Envelopment Reprise” with dueling arpeggios that led into another long terminal crescendo, with Lesh’s booming bass leading the charge this time, eventually dissolving into Garcia playing the slow, languid strains that open the Lesh/Robert Peterson composition “New Potato Caboose." Although the vocal harmonies were a bit ragged, this was another spellbinding performance, highlighted by a long Lesh bass solo and a dramatic arpeggiated middle passage in which Lesh’s bass had fallen painfully out of tune. As on the album, the tune concluded with a long, lyrical Garcia solo that builds to a huge final D chord. Ironically, this was to be one of the last few live performances of NPC by the Grateful Dead proper, although it has been resurrected by several of the subsequent ensembles led by Dead alums Weir and Lesh.
Instead of leading into Bob Weir’s punky “Born Crosseyed” as on the album, the band charged into a pair of new tunes that they were recording at the time in the studio for their next album, Aoxomoxoa. “Doin’ That Rag,” with its playfully modal chord structure, was an early harbinger of Robert Hunter’s recycling of lyrical motifs from the traditional American music in which he, Garcia, and Weir had immersed themselves before going electric. Not yet fully formed, the Fillmore version had some rough edges, but it has a lot of heart and Garcia’s voice, yet to be ground down by decades of cigarettes, was a high, playful delight.
|Grateful Dead 3/1/69|
Photo: M. Parrish
Without taking a breath, the group launched into “Cosmic Charlie” rendered at the breakneck tempo employed in the first studio versions of the song and as performed by Garcia the previous October 8 with Mickey Hart and the Hartbeats, a far cry from the mellow shuffle it became on the album. Screaming banshee guitars led into a ferocious guitar and bass boogie with Garcia and Weir singing the bulk of the song in unison, Lesh lending some high harmonies towards the end. The song ended with another batch of banshee power chords, an instrumental chorus, and a final round of “Go on home, your mama’s calling you” to round out the set. As the group headed offstage, Weir promised they would be back for “Another Set – a long one.”
Unfortunately for us, the midnight hour was approaching, and we had to head outside to meet my folks after hearing a few songs of the second Bandersnatch set. It would be another ten years before I finally heard a primitive audience tape of the second set, which consisted of two more Aoxomoxoa tunes (“Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Mountains of the Moon” leading into the familiar Live Dead suite of “Dark Star,” St. Stephen, “The Eleven,” and “Turn on Your Lovelight,” concluding with a very ragged Pigpen sung version of "Hey Jude" for the encore.
Over time, this show has been regarded as one of the classic Dead performances, and it, along with the other three nights of the run, were released as a deluxe 10 CD set by Grateful Dead records back in 2005. It certainly was a great introduction to the Fillmore West, which I still consider by far the finest rock venue of the many I have attended over the years.