The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, both pillars of late 60s improvisational music, met in Piedmont Park in Atlanta on July 6, 1969. The bands were booked together at the Fillmore East on February 11 and 13-14, 1970, when the Allmans were still unknown enough not to headline, and they had an epic jam on February 11. Even after the tragic death of Duane Allman in a motorcycle accident, the groups remained close, but it was difficult for working bands to play together. Although the Dead and the Allmans managed to guest at each others shows on July 16 and 17, 1972 (Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley at the Dead's Hartford, CT show on July 16, and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir with the Allmans in the Bronx on July 17), they had long dreamed of playing together. Finally, Bill Graham announced the double booking for three nights in Winterland on December 10-12, 1972, and Joel Selvin mentioned it as an upcoming show in his Sunday Lively Arts column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Even at the time, it seemed surprising that the two headline acts would play Winterland together. Both the Dead and the Allmans had headlined Winterland in the past, and both bands were bigger than ever. The Allman Brothers 1971 Live At Fillmore East album was a huge hit, and their current album Eat A Peach was even more popular. The Grateful Dead had released three popular albums in a row (Workingman's Dead, American Beauty and "Skull and Roses"). Their new triple live album Europe '72 was about to be released, and Warner Brothers had high hopes that this too would be a hit. However, the three shows were booked for Sunday through Tuesday, nights when Winterland was usually dark, and when most bands didn't perform, so they were effectively "extra" paydays for both the promoter and the bands. Thus the bands would be free to indulge themselves musically without interfering with any regular activity. The Dead did not have any conflicts on the weekend of December 8-9, but Bill Graham did and the Allman Brothers did as well (see below).
It was not to be. On November 11, 1972, Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley died in a motorcycle accident, and all Allman Brothers activities were put on hold again. For obvious business reasons, the Grateful Dead and Bill Graham kept the booking, and the Dead headlined Winterland by themselves. The Dead had headlined Winterland by themselves before, but never for three nights, and three school nights at that. For whatever reasons, Bill Graham chose to have opening acts all three nights. These shows were the last regular, indoor Grateful Dead shows in the Bay Area for many years that had opening acts (New Year's Eve and the occasional benefit excepted). The choices of the opening acts are actually quite interesting, and its plain that the Dead--and probably mainly Jerry Garcia--chose the acts.
Winterland, at the corner of Post and Steiner, just two blocks from the original Fillmore (at 1805 Geary), had been used by BGP since 1966 for acts that were too big for the Fillmore or Fillmore West. By late 1971, with the Fillmore West closed, Winterland became Bill Graham's main venue. Most Winterland shows had three acts, like the Fillmore West. However, bands that played a particularly long time, like the Dead, often had only one opening act. Part of the economics of Winterland was that BGP sold a lot of popcorn, soda and beer (in the upstairs bar), so the earlier people came and the longer people stayed, the more profitable the evening was.
The Grateful Dead had headlined a show at Winterland on October 9, 1972, a benefit of sorts for their road crew (so they could buy a house, apparently). The New Riders had apparently opened the show. The band had headlined another benefit on March 5, 1972, supported by The Sons Of Champlin. The Dead had also headlined New Year's Eve 1971/72, supported by The New Riders and Yogi Phlegm (as The Sons Of Champlin were known at the time). They had also headlined a weekend in May 1971, supported by The New Riders, James And The Good Brothers and RJ Fox (the Friday May 28 show was canceled since Garcia was ill, and the Dead ended up playing May 29-30).
Although the Grateful Dead were popular in the Bay Area, they had played so regularly that there was little urgency for tickets. When the Dead played a seated venue, like Berkeley Community Theater, there was tremendous pressure to get good seats, but for general admission venues like Winterland, the shows generally took a while to sell out. That's not to say they didn't sell out, as they mostly did, but tickets would typically be available for many days. Thus three shows on a weeknight was untested territory for both BGP and The Dead. While the three opening acts would have added little to ticket sales, they would have encouraged people to arrive early, and there may have been some concern on BGP's part that the Dead could not have sold out all three nights. As it happened, advance copies of Europe '72 was being played on FM radio stations the week before the show, and all three shows seemed to have sold out. Other than New Years Eve, no opening act ever appeared again with the Grateful Dead at Winterland.
Sunday, December 10, 1972: Grateful Dead/High Country
High Country was a bluegrass band formed in Berkeley in Fall 1968. Leader and mandolinist Butch Waller was an old friend of Garcia's. In the early 1960s Waller and banjoist Herb Pedersen had been in a group called The Westport Singers who played the same folk circuit as Garcia. Later, Waller and Pedersen were in a group called The Pine Valley Boys with David Nelson (there's even a picture).
Bay Area bluegrass was a lonely enterprise in the late 60s, and numerous people went in and out of High Country. David Nelson was at least a part-time member in late 1968 and early 1969, and remarkably enough Jerry Garcia filled in on banjo at least once. A tape from a performance at The Matrix survives, usually dated as February 19, 1969. We know for a fact that this date must be wrong, as the Grateful Dead were playing Fillmore West that night, and I believe the date to be February 24, 25 or 26 (I have discussed the dating of Jerry Garcia and High Country at The Matrix at length elsewhere).
High Country continued to perform, however, and by 1972 they had an album on Raccoon, a Warner Brothers imprint controlled by The Youngbloods. High Country was still a traditional bluegrass band, however, and playing acoustic music for a rowdy Winterland crowd must have been daunting indeed. Of the few comments online about this show, no one seems to recall High Country playing. There's no question in my mind, however, that Butch Waller's friendship with Garcia got the band this high profile gig. In any case, it doesn't seemed to have harmed them, as High Country has stayed together over the decades, playing Berkeley's Freight and Salvage almost every New Year's Eve.
December 11, 1972: Grateful Dead/Sons Of Champlin
The Sons Of Champlin had as long a history performing at the Fillmore and The Avalon as The Grateful Dead. The Sons had released three fine albums on Capitol, and they were widely regarded by fellow musicians as one of the most creative and adept bands. However, little success had come their way, and they broke up in 1970. Later in 1970. they had gotten back together under the name Yogi Phlegm, playing an advanced mixture of fusion jazz and soulful rock. By late 1972 the group had bowed to the obvious and begun calling themselves The Sons Of Champlin again.
The Sons were the Dead's Marin neighbors and peers, even though they lacked the Dead's success. When The Sons had opened for the Dead at Winterland on March 5, 1972, a few members (guitarist Terry Haggerty and bassist David Schallock) had gotten stuck in traffic, and Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh had filled in for some opening blues numbers. This unique occurrence was a clear indicator of The Sons' personal and professional status with the Dead (update: I should add that for much of the 70-72 period, Bill Vitt drummed for both Jerry Garcia and The Sons. I think by December 1972 The Sons had replaced Vitt with Jim Preston, but it was another important musical connection between the groups).
December 12, 1972: Grateful Dead/The Rowan Brothers
Chris and Lorin Rowan were singer/songwriters from Massachusetts, the younger brother of Sea Train guitarist Peter Rowan. The pair had been signed to Columbia Records by Clive Davis, and David Grisman ended up producing their debut album. Among The Rowan Brothers very few early performances had been opening for the Grateful Dead at Fillmore West on July 2, 1971. For that show, Jerry Garcia had played pedal steel guitar and David Grisman had played mandolin, in itself a unique pairing (Bill Kreuzmann had played drums and Bill Wolf had played bass that night). However, Garcia did not perform live with them again as a regular band member, although JGMF points out that Garcia played pedal steel for two numbers when the Rowan Brothers had opened for Hot Tuna and The New Riders the previous month (November 3, 1972).
By late 1972, The Rowan Brothers' debut album had finally been released on Columbia. Columbia was (rather unfortunately) pushing the LP with a qoute from Jerry Garcia where he said, essentially "these guys could be the next Beatles." The quote was taken out of context, and it assured that the Rowan Brothers could never live up to their hype. The album was produced by Bill Wolf and "David Diadem," the name Grisman used for the record (Bill Wolf would be the sound engineer for the "Last Five Nights" at Winterland in October 1974). On stage, the two Rowans wore spangly Nudie-type jackets. John Douglas played drums, while Wolf played bass. Grisman played keyboards, strangely enough, but he came out from behind his organ to play an electric mandolin solo. I suspect few people had any idea that this was the guy who had played on American Beauty.
The night of December 12, 1972 was not only my first Grateful Dead concert, but the first rock concert I had ever gone to. I can thus say with certainty that by 8:00 pm on Tuesday, December 12, The Rowan Brothers were the best rock band I had ever seen. When the Dead came on shortly afterwards, with Garcia and Weir wearing spangly Nudie suits, like C&W stars, I just assumed that all bands did that, since the Rowan Brothers had also. What did I know? Maybe all keyboard players took mandolin solos--I had nothing else to go on.
After these shows, it was clear that the Dead could not only sell out Winterland by themselves on a weeknight, but that the shows were long enough that opening acts did not add to the experience. Certainly the Dead in the 1970s were so overwhelming on stage that it was hard to even remember what had happened before they came on, and I can't say I missed having opening acts. Still, it was interesting to see a unique situation where Garcia and the Dead were apparently asked which of their friends they wanted to invite to open their shows, and to see which old friends were put on the bill.
Appendix: December 8-9 conflicts
I presume the Dead/Allmans Winterland extravaganza was scheduled for December 10-12 because of other weekend conflicts. The Allman Brothers had a whole tour scheduled, and they were booked at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, MI on Saturday, December 9. In fact, the Allman Brothers played this show, their first without Berry Oakley, replaced by new bassist Lamar Williams. However, it must have simply been too daunting to plan to fly to San Francisco afterwards, so that must be why the Allmans had to back out.
Bill Graham Presents had other shows booked for the weekend at Winterland, as he did almost every weekend. Friday December 8 featured J. Geils Band/Loggins & Messsina/Tranquility, and Saturday December 9 featured Quicksilver. Quicksilver in fact canceled, and I believe Winterland was dark that night--very rare for a Saturday--but I assume it was too late to consider adding another Dead date. Knowing how big the Dead were about to become, it seems obvious that a Saturday night should have been added, but that can hardly have been self-evident at the time.