Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Who, Woody Herman’s Herd, A.B. Skhy – Fillmore West 6/19/69

I finally conned my father into going to the Fillmore West with me in June. His teen years paralleled mine in that he was a kid from the suburbs who spent a lot of time in the theatres and ballrooms in Chicago hearing the big bands that were such a part of the pre-war era.  At that time, as now, Chicago was one of the epicenters of the popular music world, so all of the best big bands were frequent visitors – Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington – and Woody Herman’s Herd.  When I told him that the Herman band was being billed with the Who, he took the bait. We bought some tickets at Discount Records, and off we went.

Even though the Who were touring behind Tommy, which was by far their biggest commercial success to date,  the Fillmore West was by no means oversold. It shows how much the music industry has changed that groups like the Who and the Dead could play a roughly 1000 seat hall in 1969-70 and not sell it out.  I remember that we parked on Van Ness just around the corner from the Fillmore West entrance, got in line, and were in within a few minutes.

Dennis Geyer and Jim Marcotte of
A.B. Skhy 6/16/69 Photo: M. Parrish
The show was opened by A.B. Skhy, one of a cluster of very good blues-rock bands plying their craft in San Francisco at the time. At this time, A.B. Skhy comprised the quartet that recorded the group’s first album on MGM – guitarist Dennis Geyer, bassist Jim Marcotte, drummer Terry Anderson and Hammond B-3 organist Howard Wales. 

Their sound was defined by Geyer’s soulful vocals and Wales’ swirling jazz-influenced chops. Today, the group is probably most often remembered for the presence of Wales, who shortly thereafter forged a musical partnership with Jerry Garcia that resulted in one very fine jazz rock album Hooteroll as well as a myriad of local club gigs, mostly at the Matrix.

Howard Wales 6/19/69
Photo: M. Parrish
A.B. Skhy recorded two albums for MGM,. Their first eponymous release featured a full horn section backing the quartet, and its material formed the basis of their live shows the few times I saw them,  including their swaggering cover of B.B. King’s “You Upset Me Baby” and Wales’ instrumental showpiece,”Camelback.” The second A.B. Skhy album, “Ramblin’ On” featured a different lineup. Wales and Anderson were gone, replaced by drummer Rick Jaeger and guitarist James Curley Cooke, who was all over the San Francisco blues rock scene,  starting with the original lineup of the Steve Miller Band and later fronting his own Hurdy Gurdy Band and gigging with pianist Ben Sidran. The album was produced by noted LA Scenester Kim Fowley, and it was more polished, but the raw energy that fueled the Wales iteration of the group was missing, although it was definitely in evidence that evening at the Fillmore West.

The show turned out to be a funny hybrid between the format that Bill Graham had been using previously with two sets per group each night and the one he went to shortly thereafter with each band only playing once. Although the other two bands each played two sets, the centerpiece of the show (between the first sets by AB Skhy and Woody Herman) being one long set by the Who. The reason for the single set and their early position on the bill was that the band had to catch a redeye to New York City after their set, where Townshend had to stand trial for an event that had occurred at the Fillmore East the previous month. They were in the middle of their set when a plain clothes policeman commandeered the microphone to announce that a fire had broken out in the adjacent building. Townshend, not realizing what the policeman was up to, assumed he was some tripping audience member trying to take over his stage and kicked him off the stage. Needless to say, New York’s finest did not take this kindly, and Townshend was arrested. At his court appearance, he ultimately was assessed a $30 fine for his infraction. There is a great reminiscence of that show here.

The Who 6/19/69 Photo: M. Parrish
What this meant for us was a single long set by the Who, a bit road weary from a long tour, but still firing on all cylinders. In a format that was familiar for them at the time,  they opened with a string of short tunes, starting with perennial set openers “Heaven and Hell” and “Can’t Explain.” At this point, I had all of their albums, but was not fully prepared for the sonic and visual assault that was the Who in their prime. Like Clapton, Townshend had twin Marshall stacks that seemed a lot louder in the friendly confines of the Fillmore West than they did in a big hall like the Oakland Arena. Townshend’s jumps and windmills were a revelation in that era before concert videos, as was Keith Moon’s hyperkinetic drumming. It was a surprise to see vocalist Roger Daltrey, who had sported a Beatlish bob on previous album covers, with what subsequently became his trademark mop of curls. I think their overall presence was probably quite a culture shock for my dad, as were the dense clouds of non-tobacco smoke wafting about, but he took it all in stride, and certainly appreciated the Who’s chops as well as their showmanship.

After a quicker than usual run through Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” the Who played the bulk of Tommy in an abridged version that ran just under an hour. Again, a plethora of archival video and audio releases have made the remarkable vehicle that was the concert version of Tommy familiar, but at the time it was a remarkable, and very energized alternative to the album version. Eschewing the overture,  the group plowed directly into the rock opera’s plot following a verbal synopsis from Townshend.  The more remarkable parts were the blazing “Sparks” with taciturn bassist John Entwhistle leading the charge, an uptempo version of “Eyesight to the Blind,” a charged version of their single of the time “Pinball Wizard. The larger than life finale “See Me Feel Me” had not yet worn out its welcome, and provided a dazzling climax to the rock opera.

With Tommy under their belt and an eye on the clock, the group closed with a speedy medley starting with Entwhistle’s  macabre “Boris the Spider” followed in quick succession by “Summertime Blues,” “Shakin’ All Over” and an extended “Magic Bus.” Much to the crowd’s dismay, they took their leave without an encore or even a guitar-smashing “My Generation” finale – but they had a good excuse, and apparently made their 1130 flight without any trouble.  A very good audience recording of this performance exists among collectors, and it is regarded as one of their finer shows of the era by Who aficionados.

No one except possibly Jimi Hendrix should have had the task of following the Who at that point in their career, but that was the daunting task that faced Woody Herman and the Herd. However, Herman knew a thing or two about whipping a crowd into a frenzy, and had the raw power of his horn heavy big band to do so. Herman had been courting a rock audience in recent years,  and his recent album had featured covers of both “Light My Fire” and Richard Harris’ schmaltzy “MacArthur Park.”Being ignorant of their repertoire at the time, I can’t offer many details of their set, but they did indeed succeed in winning the crowd over.  A year or so later, Herman went even further into the rock arena by cutting an album, Brand New, that was a collaboration with bay area guitar icon Michael Bloomfield. We left after the first Herman set – it was a Thursday night and I’m pretty sure my father had to go to work the next day.

The Who 6/16/69 Photo: M. Parrish

Woody Herman's Herd 6/19/69 Photo M. Parrish

 My experience of the audiences at the Fillmore West was that they were open to anything, and Bill Graham had a long tradition of diverse bills that brought jazz, blues or salsa veterans together with the headliner rock acts of the era. Unfortunately, this tradition fell by the wayside,  even for Bill Graham’s bookings, as popular music became more of a big business.  In its day, it made for some fine, eclectic shows, and this one was certainly a highly memorable one for me.

1 comment:

Corry342 said...

A fantastic memoir, as always. I love how the Woody Herman band were all wearing kaftans and beads by this time, rather than uniforms.

I can't think of another photo of AB Skhy live, certainly I didn't see any on Google images.