|The cover for the video of The Grateful Dead's performance at the last show at Winterland in 1978|
Yes, yes, I know, everybody was way gone and no one recalls a thing, and so on. But wasn't that true of every show? Somebody must remember something, right? Therefore, in honor of the title of this blog, I am going to try and assess what little information there is about the Grateful Dead's New Year's Eve show on December 31, 1968. The Grateful Dead played the last show at Winterland exactly ten years later. What do we know about their first New Year's Eve Winterland performance? What can we reasonably assume? Why do we know so little? If we are lucky, I can inspire some long-dormant memories in the Comments, and a vivid flashback or two may eventually give us some real context. I myself think the 1968 New Year's Eve show must have been a remarkable event, and I find it frustrating to have such a high profile show and so little actual information.
What Do We Know About The Grateful Dead's Performance?
We know one very important fact about the Grateful Dead performance on New Year's Eve, 1968, even if it is a frustrating one. We know that the Winterland New Year's Eve show was the first attempt by the Dead's engineers to record the band live on 16-track tape. This was probably the first attempt to record any band live on 16-track tape. The band had been working with Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor at Pacific Recording in San Mateo throughout the fall, recording an album tentatively titled Earthquake Country. They tried working with 8 tracks and then 12 tracks, but did not like the tinny sound that resulted. Ampex was a high tech company located near Pacific Recording, and the band befriended the engineers and persuaded them to deliver one of the first 16-track recorders ever built to Pacific instead of Columbia Studios in Los Angeles.
The band and their engineers even got some of the Ampex engineers to agree to help them sneak the heavy recorder out the door and out to Winterland, which is how the attempt to record at Winterland came about. The Dead, at this point, weren't particularly planning a live album, but just generally experimenting with recording. Since they tried to record most or all shows anyway, it obviously seemed like an interesting experiment to try recording the band in sixteen tracks instead of two, so they snuck the machine out the door and off to Winterland.
Not surprisingly, recording the Grateful Dead in sixteen tracks was a daunting technical exercise that failed. However, the band was enamored enough with the experiment that they chose to try recording at the Avalon Ballroom a month later (January 26, 1969). That time, however, the band got it right, figuring out whatever technical problems had plagued them at Winterland. However, 16-track tape was very expensive and the Dead were famously cash poor, so they simply taped over the Winterland material in order to record at the Avalon. If I have the timeline correct, they also taped over much of the Avalon material, too, when they recorded the subsequent month at Fillmore West, so any traces of the original Winterland show are long gone. We do have Live/Dead to show for it (and the 10-cd Live At Fillmore West), so I'm thankful for that, but any Winterland recordings ceased to exist within a month.
I have to assume also that with their engineering crew working with brand new technology, any efforts to record the band the "regular way" were pushed to the wayside. I have no idea about outputs and inputs, or any of that, but I have to figure that the reputedly huge 16-track Ampex box swallowed up all the available space, and there was neither opportunity nor motive to record a tape using the 2-track recorder they used on the road. It may have been as simple as there being no extra room for the smaller tape deck. I have to assume that any BGP recording equipment was pushed aside also. As a result, though, when the Fillmore West 16-tracks were erased, there appears to have been no other recordings.
Deadbase XI does have a partial setlist for New Year's Eve '68:
Midnight HourAssuming "Midnight Hour" was actually played at midnight, and that the list was continuous, that sounds like a pretty cool way to start the New Year. However, we know no such thing. First of all, where does the list come from? If it's a memory, I hope whoever it was is reading this blog. In any case, if it's a memory, it's probably just the highlights of the show. The more intriguing possibility is that this list comes from a tape box. Perhaps while the New Year's Eve tape was erased, the tape box was at least still legible? If true, then we would at least have some confirmation that the named songs were actually performed. However, I do not know Deadbase's source for the partial setlist [update: superb research by a Commenter reveals that one piece of tape endures: a recording of "Midnight Hour." However, it seems to have featured members of most of the bands, and so was probably recorded at an early morning jam, not at midnight, so we don't have a clue what was played at midnight. Of course, they could have played the song twice).
Turn On Your Lovelight.
The New Year's Eve Order Of Battle
Until about 1970, Fillmore and Fillmore West concerts had a different structure than modern rock concerts. Generally, all three billed bands ("on the poster," I like to say) performed twice, in round robin fashion. The opening act would perform the 1st and 4th sets of the evening, and the headliner the 3rd and 6th sets. Thus while the Grateful Dead typically played two approximately hour long sets on nights they played the Fillmores, the sets were separated by the other two acts. I have been able to estimate a typical schedule for a regular Fillmore West show (based on some research of my own and an eyewitness account of the Saturday, March 1, 1969 show. For those interested in the details, see Appendix 1 below). If the Grateful Dead headlined a Fillmore or Fillmore West show from 1967 to 1969, the evening usually looked something like this:
- Opening Act: 8:00-8:45pm and 11:45-12:30am
- Second Act: 9:00-10:00pm and 12:45-1:45am
- Grateful Dead: 10:30-11:30 and 2:00-3:00am
Thus while most Fillmore shows ended before 2:00, late running shows for the likes of the Dead were manageable. For many bands, including the Dead, the first sets would be shorter than the allotted time. Headliners like the Dead were probably allowed to play as long as they wanted to for their final set.
With this framework in mind, I have attempted to speculate on what the New Year's Eve 1968 schedule may have looked like. Keep in mind that we have nothing to go on--I don't even know what order the bands came on, or even when the concert started. But here's my educated guess of the evening's running order [update: an eagle-eyed Commenter has noted that the poster identifies the show as running from 9:00pm to 9:00am, so I have revised the pre-midnight timing somewhat]:
- It's A Beautiful Day 9:00-9:40
- Santana 9:50-10:30
- Quicksilver 10:40-11:40
- New Year's festivities? 11:40-12:00pm (complete speculation on my part)
- Grateful Dead 12:00-1:00am
- IABD 1:15-2:00am
- Santana 2:15-3:00am
- Quicksilver 3:15-4:15am
- Grateful Dead 4:30-5:30am
- Jam session? 5:30-6:15am (it appears there was a big jam)
- Breakfast 6:00am-9:00am
I have assumed that the Grateful Dead started their first set at midnight, presumably with "Midnight Hour," but I may be pasting later experiences onto the past. Maybe the Dead had started at 11:30, and were roaring through "St. Stephen" at midnight, and they turned on strobe lights and set off fireworks. No one actually knows. But there were four bands, and the Dead in their prime, and it was a long night, so something must have happened. Here's hoping my post sparks a long-dormant flashback [update: another Commenter finds a source who recalls that QMS played at midnight, starting out with "Dino's Song."If this memory stands up, then I would invert QMS and the Dead on the proposed schedule].
Appendix 1: Fillmore West Scheduling
I know that all three bands on Fillmore West posters played twice around, so that means there were 5 set changes. Shows generally started at 8:00pm. I know that headliners were told to do two one-hour sets, as this was a crisis for visiting English bands like The Who and Cream, used to doing much shorter shows. In the earlier days of the Fillmore, opening acts played much shorter sets, like 30 or 45 minutes. However, when there were multiple headliners, every headliner probably got an hour.
Based on the lengths of various surviving live tapes (not just the Dead), a lot of bands played first sets considerably shorter than their allotted time, and often second sets as well. Most bands were used to doing 40 or 50 minutes and did not have two hours of material. By 1969, however, even second acts had a number of albums, and were prepared to play two long sets at Fillmore West, so sets probably ran closer to full length. Bands almost all used the Fillmore West sound system, so the set changes were considerably shorter than they would be today. The Grateful Dead were one of the few exceptions to this rule, as they used their own sound system, so I allotted more time for their first set change in my schedules. Keep in mind also that bands had considerably less spare equipment in the early days, and while the set changes were easy, a busted amplifier or something could cause a time consuming headache.
My outline of a Fillmore West schedule was borne out, and to some extent guided by, a detailed description of someone who attended the Saturday, March 1, 1969 show at Fillmore West, featuring the Grateful Dead, Pentangle and Frumious Bandersnatch. Our correspondent had to be out of the Fillmore West by midnight, so I had to speculate more about the late night sets. On that night, the Dead's first set was 45 minutes and the second set was 67 minutes. Keep in mind that their allotted time would also be taken up with some tuning up and stage business prior to the show, usally not preserved on tape.
Appendix 2: Notes On The Other acts, December 31, 1968
|Happy Trails by Quicksilver Messenger Service, released in March, 1969|
December 31, 1968 was the last performance of the classic quartet lineup of Quicksilver Messenger Service. John Cipollina (lead guitar), Gary Duncan (guitar, vocals), David Freiberg (bass, vocals) and Greg Elmore (drums) recorded the debut album (released May 1968) and the legendary Happy Trails, released in March, 1969. Happy Trails, recorded in November of 1968, mostly at Fillmores East and West, was the album that immortalized Quicksilver, but that lineup of the band was already gone by the time of its release. Gary Duncan quit the band after the 1968 New Year's show, and he would not return until the next New Year's Eve (at Winterland with the Jefferson Airplane). However, when Duncan returned, he brought singer Dino Valenti with him, and the musical character of Quicksilver was never the same.
However, while it is easy to sentimentalize the final performance of the Quicksilver quartet, in fact they were a tired, unhappy band who had not written or likely even performed a new song in a year. They had been playing the same main numbers over and over for two years, and while they had it down to a powerful formula, it had nowhere left to go. I'm sure that Quicksilver put on a good show New Year's Eve, and it probably sounded like Happy Trails, but only those who were seeing them for the first time would have been really impressed.
Santana was some months away from signing with Columbia Records, and their debut album would not be released until August, 1969. However, they were a popular local group who were often second billed at the Fillmore West, and they headlined smaller halls around the Bay Area. Given that they did not have an album, they were hardly unknowns. The late 1968 Santana band did not have the same lineup that would be made iconic in the Woodstock movie. In December 1968, Santana was
- Carlos Santana-guitar
- Gregg Rolie-organ, vocals
- David Brown-bass
- Doc Livingstone-drums
- Marcus Malone-congas
We do have a pretty good idea of how Santana sounded at the time--a very good idea, in fact. Santana had played Fillmore West just two weeks earlier, co-headlining with The Grass Roots for four nights from December 19-22. In 1997, Columbia Legacy released a two-cd set of highlights of Santana's performances that weekend as Live At The Fillmore West '68. While not as incendiary as the version of Santana which would follow, they were already a terrific band, and way ahead of their time, so they must have rocked the house in a big way. While Quicksilver was just repeating themselves, Santana was very much a New Thing, and the crowd must surely have recognized it.
It's A Beautiful Day
It's A Beautiful Day, just like Santana, had not yet released their first album, but they were a popular live attraction already. Just a month earlier (November 28-30), IABD had co-headlined a weekend at Fillmore West with the new British band Deep Purple (who had a hit with "Hush") and San Francisco funksters Cold Blood. It's A Beautiful Day had formed in late 1967, and had been through a variety of players, but the lineup had stabilized by the end of 1968 into a powerful group.
- Patti Santos-vocals
- David LaFlamme-electric violin, vocals
- Hal Wagenet-lead guitar
- Linda LaFlamme-organ
- Mitch Holman-bass
- Val Fuentes-drums
Wolfgang's Vault has several nice recordings of IABD from mid-1968, performing most of the first album. Although subsequent performances were no doubt more nuanced, it is clear from these tapes that IABD had their whole sound completely figured out, which is why their first album was so good. In many ways, It's A Beautiful Day was one of those groups like The Doors or Devo who have their musical identity completely determined by their first album, but were unable to progress much beyond it. IABD was probably pretty impressive to the Winterland crowd, as they were already at their high water mark.
In 1968, the Grateful Dead were booked by the Millard Agency, the talent agency wing of Bill Graham's music industry empire. Graham had loaned the Dead some money in mid-68, and they had apparently agreed to be booked by Millard in return. Among the other groups booked by Millard at the time were Santana, It's A Beautiful Day, Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop and Aum. It was not a coincidence that those groups regularly appeared with the Dead during the 68-69 period. New Year's Eve 1968 was a big deal, by any standard, and with the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver topping the bill, the show was going to sell out. Graham's bookers had the sense to make sure that their own agency's bands were on the bill that night, to make sure they got heard. To be fair, Santana and It's A Beautiful Day were terrific live acts that must have gone over well with the crowd, but there was a distinct business reason to choose them over other local acts.
Appendix 3: Fillmore West, December 31, 1968-Vanilla Fudge/Richie Havens/Cold Blood
BGP inaugurated another New Year's Eve tradition in 1968, namely having multiple concerts in the Bay Area, rather than just a single event. Besides the high profile Dead/QMS show at Winterland, another concert was held at the Fillmore West. The Fillmore West was about a mile from Winterland, and less than half the size, but it was still a substantial hall for the era. I think the three bands were chosen specifically because they appealed to a somewhat different audience than typical Dead or Quicksilver fans. Vanilla Fudge were the inventors of "Heavy Rock" and had a very East Coast style; Richie Havens was a mostly solo folk artist, and local favorites Cold Blood played horn driven funk. Although both concerts were advertised on the same poster, I think the Fillmore West bands were selected to appeal to people who wanted to attend a New Year's Eve rock concert, but not by San Francisco band. Admittedly, Cold Blood were local, but they weren't an "acid rock" band, and in any case they were booked by Millard, so they were going to be on this high profile bill.
I'm not particularly interested in the '68 Fillmore West New Year's Eve concert, per se. However, once again we know absolutely nothing about the show. If any information surfaced about the concert, it might be possible to triangulate a little bit about the Winterland show, with respect to set lengths, New Year's celebrations or special add-ons. Once again, all information about any San Francisco New Year's Eve concerts in the 1960s seems to have gone down the rabbit hole, with only the faintest traces left at the surface. New Year's Eve in San Francisco must have been truly legendary, because no one seems to remember a thing. Here's to hoping there's still some flashbacks yet to come.