Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fillmore West February 27-March 2, 1969 Grateful Dead/Pentangle/Sir Douglas Quintet

Jacqui McShee and Bert Jansch of Pentangle, on stage at the Fillmore West, March 1, 1969 (photo by and courtesy of Michael Parrish)

The Grateful Dead's monumental 4-night stand at the Fillmore West from February 27-March 2 passed into legend long ago, as the primary source material for Live/Dead. The tapes circulated for years, but any speculation about the power of the band at their best was put to rest when the entire run was released as a 10-cd set in 2005 (Fillmore West 69: The Complete Recordings). This was the Grateful Dead playing at their best in a comfortable environment, and recorded by state-of-the-art equipment. Its hard to think there would be more to say about the Grateful Dead's music that weekend, but there was another very critical musical event during that weekend that had a profound influence on the Grateful Dead's music, namely the revelation of hearing the opening act Pentangle.

Pentangle, who only existed from 1967-73, is mostly forgotten these days by all but their fervent fans--of whom there are quite a few--and in any case they are fairly or unfairly lumped together with English folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span. Much as I love the Fairports, Pentangle doesn't sound like them or anyone else. However, the band's relevance to the Grateful Dead is that they apparently dramatically influenced Jerry Garcia and the Dead's interest in performing acoustic music live. Pentangle had a unique lineup for the time, with two phenomenal acoustic guitarists and an amplified rhythm section, underlying the brilliant vocals of singer Jacqui McShee. Pentangle played disciplined arrangements and yet improvised freely, seamlessly merged numerous styles of music, performed brilliant originals and surprisingly arranged cover versions--does this sound like a band we like?--and did it all sitting down, with two acoustic guitarists.

It would take almost another year before the Dead broke out their acoustic format, with Garcia and Weir playing acoustic guitars and singing over an amplified rhythm section, but according to various references the band got the idea from hearing Pentangle. One thing about the Fillmore West shows that seems to have been forgotten is that the format in the 1960s was very different than today. Most rock concerts, and all Fillmore West shows, had 3 or 4 bands. At the Fillmore West, all three acts played a set, and then all three acts played another set, so the Dead would have performed third and sixth (last). The audience would sit through all the sets (if they liked the bands), but the business of the Dead playing a few long sets in a row did not come in until early 1970. One of the byproducts of this arrangement was that the headline act had to be "in the house" when the other bands where going through their second round, so musicians had little choice but to hear each other play.

Pentangle would have played 8 sets at the Fillmore West, and while Garcia and the boys may or may not have seen the first one, I'll bet they didn't miss the rest of them. I don't usually link to concert recordings, but hearing Pentangle live is a revelation (Berkeley Community Theater May 29, 1970). They are impossible to quantify, and bassist Danny Thompson (later better known for working with no-relation Richard Thompson) and drummer Terry Cox are as much a part of the music as acoustic guitar giants Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, and McShee (and Jansch) provide perfect vocals without drowning the band. They can cover old folk songs ("Sally Go Round The Roses"), jazz standards (Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") and originals (the twenty-minute opus "Pentangling"). Pentangle's song "Cold Mountain" is done to the tune of "Dark Hollow", and even includes the "I'd rather be in some dark hollow" verse," and save for McShee's angelic vocals its pretty close to what we recognize as the Dead's arrangement.

So if one of the best recordings of one of the best runs by the Grateful Dead wasn't enough, a fantastic opening act had a big effect on the future of Grateful Dead music, showing them that improvised acoustic music with a rhythm section was viable in a concert setting. Pentangle reforms once in a while for a few concerts, most recently in 2008, to a rapturous reception, fitting for what I believe to be the only rock band that can be creditably certified as having influenced both the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.

Oh yeah, by the way--the Sir Douglas Quintet opened the show (a tape floats around from Feb 27), and they were really good too.

18 comments:

  1. This post is about how hearing Pentangle appears to have influenced the Grateful Dead's acoustic sets. I am aware of the fact that although Pentangle's rhythm section was amplified, bassist Danny Thompson was playing a miked upright bass, and that Bert Jansch played electric guitar on a few numbers, and so on.

    Still, the band's basic configuration was two guys on acoustic guitar, a singer and a rhythm section, all sitting down (except for Danny Thompson, obviously), a very contrary approach to rock bands in the 60s in both America and England.

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  2. I should also add that some shows at the Fillmore West, usually on Friday and Saturday night, had yet another act who played prior to all the other bands "on the poster." This band was usually plucked from the ranks of the Tuesday Night Auditions, and did not play the second time through. As a result, for at least two of the nights, the Dead probably actually played the 4th and 7th slots of the night.

    For more about the Fillmore West Audition Nights, see here
    http://rockprosopography101.blogspot.com/2009/09/fillmore-west-lost-concerts-tuesday.html

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  3. I don't recall encountering this causal claim. Can you identify a source for it?

    Others have speculated that the Flying Burrito Bros. were the key influence re the Dead's country turn. Some say The Band. I might argue that Rosemary on Aoxomoxoa, performed live in late '68, dates the country/acoustic turn to earlier than the FW run in early 69.

    Thoughts?

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  4. I have had difficulty recovering the Pentangle claim. In "A Signpost To New Space" (page 93) Garcia talks about how much he likes Pentangle, so I'm not imagining things, but I admit I can't pin down the citation.

    On the other hand, Pentangle was the only 60s band who played twin acoustics with a rhythm section, sitting down, so I'm pretty confident I'll dig it up. Eventually.

    I have a lot to say about the Burritos, too, but that's for another post. I think what the Dead got from Pentangle was "the sound", double acoustics fronting a band, not so much the music that comprised the sound.

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  5. Here's at least one quote, although the context seems to be the 1980 acoustic shows (it seems to be from a guitar magazine type thing)
    http://malfalfa1.tripod.com/garciainterview.htm

    Garcia: I just thought it would be a good idea. We tried it, and it was fun. The technology came into place too. That was one of the reasons we didn’t do it for so long —we used to try it with microphones, and it really didn’t work. It’s much easier now that they have made vast improvements in amplified acoustic instruments. The audience liked it a lot. The combination of drums, electric bass, and acoustic guitars is a really nice sound. In the ‘60s, there was a great-sounding band called Pentangle with those two good English fingerpickers, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. They had a tasty jazz drummer who played brushes, an excellent acoustic bass player, and a lady who sang in a sort of madrigal, English voice. It was a lovely band that sounded great onstage. We played a lot of shows with them, and I thought that combination of two acoustic guitars and a standard rhythm section had a lot of possibilities.

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  6. I have a long post on the Dead's slide into acoustic music on my blog - hadn't thought about Pentangle, though.
    Mountains of the Moon (from late '68) is a song that fairly hollers "Pentangle influence!", though that may be coincidental. What's interesting is that even before this Fillmore run, the Dead's Feb '69 shows tend to have a little acoustic portion of Dupree's/Mountains - that is, Garcia's on acoustic while Weir stays electric, I believe. Then later in June/July '69, we have more acoustic songs on occasion, but even then I think it's just one acoustic guitar at a time. Then in Feb '70 they started to dip into mini-acoustic sets in the middle of the shows - which was mostly just Garcia & Weir on acoustic, without that "full-band" sound that started in May.

    Anyway - it's curious that Garcia says they played "a lot" of shows with Pentangle. How many shows was it, and when?

    Also, as a sidenote, I'm one of those who never really thought of the Dead's 1969 two-set shows as actually being two separated shows... Those must have been LONG nights, no wonder they didn't finish til dawn sometimes! (Helps explain why the first sets are so short, too.)
    But now I wonder how many shows there were in '69 when the Dead DID play two sets in a row... It's tricky to look up, since opening bands don't seem to be consistently listed anywhere.

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  7. The funny thing about Garcia's remark about Pentangle is that I think they only played Fillmore West with them that one time, and yet it stuck in Garcia's mind.

    As to the split sets in 1969, Fillmore West (and Winterland) shows were split (two times around the bill), but other venues were starting to migrate to what is considered a more conventional setup. Certainly the Family Dog on The Great Highway moved to the more conventional one-time-through arrangement.

    Another way to look at it is to notice that the Fillmore East and the Fillmore West had the same setup, but the Fillmore East had two admissions.

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  8. I went to the 3.1.69 concert and it was a true life-changer. I'd never seen a photo of Pentangle from the show so it was cool to see one! I still remember them sitting on chairs.

    Another thing about that night is that Sir Douglas did not play due to illness or something. Though I remember Pentangle clearly, I could never remember the opening act. Recently someone identified the opener that night as Frumunious Bandersnatch.

    Now it is hard to understand how the stage was set up to allow three bands to play twice but that's how it went in those halcyon days.

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  9. Frumious Bandersnatch would make sense as a guest opener, since they were booked by the Millard Agency, who were connected to Bill Graham Presents.

    Frumious was an interesting band as well--it seems that every band that played that weekend was golden.

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  10. Not only that, but Frumious Bandersnatch had played with the Hartbeats at the Matrix just a week before, on February 24.
    So I'm not sure it was Bill Graham's call that brought Frumious to the stage on 3/1/69.

    In fact, I was wondering if there was a connection between Frumious and the Dead, and came across this in an online bio of Debbie Hutchins, a guitar player:
    "She performed her way through the ranks with bands like Frumious Bandersnatch, Lisa Kindred, Ascension and the Les Tension Band as well as opening for the Mothers at the Fillmore as part of Frumious Bandersnatch. During that time she first came in contact with the Grateful Dead. In 1968-69, Hutchins recorded with a number of acts including vocal work on the Grateful Dead's album Aoxomoxoa, in San Mateo with her teacher and friend, Jerry Garcia."

    Now this is very interesting...I've never seen this lady's name in a Frumious Bandersnatch band-member list. Is she making it up? Or was she a hidden connection between the two bands?

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  11. Frumious Bandersnatch played with the Grateful Dead a number of times, and I believe the bands were quite friendly in a big brother>little brother kind of way. However, its important to remember that headliners at the Fillmore West had no say about who they played with, much less substitutions. When there was a band needed for a paying, high profile show, there was no question that Graham was going to use a band from his own agency. That was just business, and there were numerous examples of this.

    Doug Sahm and Bill Graham apparently had a sort of rocky relationship as well, so it may not have been "illness" that put Sahm off the bill.

    The Debbie Hutchins reference is interesting in its own right. There were essentially two different versions of Frumious Bandersnatch, with relatively little crossover in membership, except for drummer and vocalist Jack King. The late 1967 version of Frumious featured one Kaja Doria on vocals, and I assume that her real name was Debbie Hutchins. The 1967 Frumious broke up after a fire in their Oakland warehouse destroyed their equipment.

    Jack King reformed Frumious in 1968 in Lafayette with a triple guitar lineup, and this was the band that played with The Dead a number of times. A number of players in this Frumious went on to play with the Steve Miller Band, and one of them (David Denny) still tours with Miller. Another member (Ross Valory) helped found Journey after he left the Miller Band.

    I assume Debbie Hutchins/Kaja Doria was one of many people who sang backgrounds on the Aoxomoxoa sessions. Nonetheless, its a very interesting connection that I had not noticed.

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  12. Ah, I see... Presumably that means that on a Fillmore stage, the Dead could not just invite another band like, say, the Animals, to play a set with them!

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  13. ha ha, yes, well, the Dead could probably do what they wanted during their allotted time, but remember the Animals weren't paid to sit in with the Dead (not to say that Bill Graham wasn't thrilled to have them there).

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  14. These Fillmore West shows were the end of Pentangle's first American tour, which had begun on February 7 at Fillmore East. (An audience recording was made of that show.)

    A nearly-complete show from the Royal Festival Hall in June '68 has been released (as a bonus to the Sweet Child album), and their Feb '69 shows were probably quite similar, though condensed to 40-minute sets. They tended to end shows with the long number Pentangling. As drummer Terry Cox said, "We always finish with a freeform freakout number to let off steam. We work on a system of cues - we hope no one notices, but we each improvise until the cue is given, then we all return to the worked-out passages until the next cue. The thing about this is you have to be ready for the cue..."

    Pentangle were rather bemused by the American tour, as they tended to be put on with big loud rock groups... Pentangle's first show at the Fillmore East made a lasting impression on them.
    Bert Jansch: "Playing the gig at the Fillmore was unbelievable...the actual volume of the American music... We'd been used to little Vox AC30s and we'd brought them with us. On the first gig we were sandwiched between Canned Heat and Rhinoceros. We were up in the dressing rooms - and the walls were actually shaking with the volume."
    Jacqui McShee: "I don't think I've seen as much electrical equipment in all my life as when we walked onstage to set our stuff up."
    Danny Thompson: "We were on with Canned Heat and Rhinoceros, and they had about 32 amplifiers onstage, We were really nervous about how our acoustic thing would go down after all that. Before we went on, Bill Graham...announced us: 'After 10,000 decibels, give your ears a treat,' he said."
    McShee: "[The Fillmores] were very prestigious places to play, but I don't think there were any bands around at that time in the States that were like us, so I don't think they knew quite where to put us."
    John Renbourn: "The band was booked, amazingly enough, as an 'underground' band! We actually shared bills with the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, Shuggie Otis, Alice Cooper and all those people. So tours like that were pretty much wrong venues... Night after night we were on the so-called 'underground' circuit, and we used to have to follow different bands - all of whom were really heavy and very loud."

    Audiences turned out to be quite enthusiastic about Pentangle, though, even applauding the bass solos. McShee observed: "They were so stoned they would have listened to anything."
    Thompson: "[British] interviewers are always asking us if we're pop or folk or jazz...[but] in America it didn't bother them... Surprisingly, even the folk purists over there went wild about it all - they seemed particularly pleased by the acoustic idea. They seem to think we're bringing it back from the 14th century."
    McShee: "In England...if you have a concert, then everyone on the bill is playing roughly the same sort of thing. In America, you can have a concert with a jazz group, a soul band, an underground group and us. And the audience really wants to hear all the different things! When we first went to the States, we tried not to do the more traditional [folk] songs, but we found that was what they wanted to hear."

    I've been listening to the Pentangle box set The Time Has Come - disc 4 in particular, which is all live & unreleased, has a 20-minute Pentangling from 1970 (nothing Dead-like, more like a disjointed series of solos I'm afraid), their version of Cold Rain & Snow, and a stunning rendition of Willy O'Winsbury, an old English ballad of the kind Garcia loved. (Fairport Convention also used that song as the basis of their Farewell.)

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  15. LIA, thanks for the great overview on Pentangle. Although not actually Dead-like, they were an amazing band--to this day, no one really sounds like them. They also did a version of "Dark Hollow," although it had a completely different name. I wonder if they did it one night at Fillmore West?

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  16. Corry and LIA,

    Debbie Hutchins and Kaja Doria were not the same person. Also Debbie Hutchins never played with Frumious Bandersnatch, because no one in that band know and/or remember this girl.

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  17. Very interesting about Debbie Hutchins. The funny part is that lots of people exaggerate having played or recorded with famous bands like the Grateful Dead, but who makes up a story about the Frumious Bandersnatch? Weird.

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  18. Right Corry!. This story is both funny and weird. When I asked Brian Hough, FB's bass player, about Debbie Hutchins and her biography on myspace that claimed that she played guitar with FB, he told me jokingly: "If she ever played with anybody in the band, it was not musically. Sexually, maybe"

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