Friday, February 12, 2010

March 18, 1968 Green and Embarcadero Streets, San Francisco: Traffic with Jerry Garcia

I have been vaguely aware for some time that Traffic played a free concert in downtown San Francisco in March of 1968, and I had seen a grainy photo of Jerry Garcia playing with Traffic outdoors. I had always assumed that meant that Garcia had played with them, but I was unable to pin much down. Thanks to modern technology, however, I am able to put all the pieces together. On a new Facebook page devoted to the Grateful Dead Archives at UC Santa Cruz, one Andrew Wong has posted a series of photos of Garcia playing with Traffic. They are not my photos to post, so I have refrained from doing so, but they are well worth a click through for anyone interested in this sort of thing. What follows is the facts as I have been able to piece them together.

Traffic's First American Tour, March-April 1968
Traffic had formed in 1967, led by budding superstar Steve Winwood, already famous for his fantastic vocal, songwriting, guitar and keyboard performances in The Spencer Davis Group ("Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man" were among the highlights). Although Winwood shone the brightest, the other group members (Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood and Dave Mason) shared a variety of songwriting and instrumental duties. In particular, Traffic was one of the first groups to grasp the breadth of studio recordings, so while they played every instrument themselves every track sounded different. Their late 1967 debut album Mr Fantasy was a huge hit in the UK and in the US underground.

Dave Mason left the band in early 1968, starting a pattern of leaving and joining the band that would continue throughout the group's existence. When Traffic set out on their first American tour in Spring 1968, they were a trio, and it was a tribute to their talents that they could play such complex music as a trio without a bass player. Winwood generally played organ or guitar and played bass with his feet on the organ, Capaldi played drums, and Wood played saxophone and flute except when he played organ or bass.

Traffic's American tour began in San Francisco with two weekends at the Fillmore and Winterland. On March 14-15-16 they headlined over HP Lovecraft, Blue Cheer, Mother Earth and Penny Nichols, and on March 21-22-23 they were second on a bill that featured Moby Grape/Traffic/Lemon Pipers/Spirit. The fact that the weekend shows (15-16 and 22-23) were at Winterland was a sign of their drawing power, a fact due exclusively to the emergence of KMPX-fm in San Francisco.

The FM radio dial was barely touched prior to the 1960s. Disc jockey Larry Miller took over the midnight-to-six am slot on KMPX-fm in San Francisco (106.9) on February 12, 1967 and played folk rock album cuts, the first known commercial station to do so. The rest of the programming was in foreign languages. A popular local DJ, Tom Donahue, took over the 8pm-midnight slot on April 7, 1967. As the foreign language contracts expired, Donahue took over the all the programming, and by August 6, 1967 KMPX-fm was the first "free-form" rock station in the world. Donahue and his staff played album cuts and demo tapes, talked like normal hippies, interviewed musicians (including Garcia and Phil Lesh in April 1967) and created modern rock radio as we know it. Ratings soared. The newest, hippest albums got played immediately, and often every track was featured. A group like Traffic got little airplay in the rest of the country, but they were huge on KMPX and thus already stars when they arrived in San Francisco to begin their first American tour.

Traffic and The Grateful Dead
The world of psychedelic rock bands was so small that there was a general assumption that they were all kindred spirits. That wasn't far wrong. According to Jim Capaldi, in anticipation of Traffic's American tour, the Grateful Dead had made contact (presumably by sending a hand-written letter--imagine that) and met Traffic at SFO, dosing them with Owsley acid immediately (with the band's enthusiastic assent). Traffic apparently spent a fair amount of time hanging out with the Dead, accounting for the long standing friendships between the various band members. Part of the psychology of the San Francisco bands was to test out visiting groups, particularly from England, to see if they were "kindred spirits" (meaning "took LSD") and to see if they were good enough to jam with the locals, like visiting gunslingers. Traffic passed with flying colors, apparently.

There has been a vague rumor over the years that Garcia jammed with Traffic at the Fillmore and Winterland, and its distinctly possible, and even likely, but I've never been able to confirm or deny it one way or another.

The KMPX Strike
Tom Donahue and his staff had made KMPX-fm tremendously successful, but the owners were sharing none of the fruits of their success. Ultimately, Donahue and the staff went on strike, supported wholeheartedly by the San Francisco bands. The strike began at midnight on Monday, March 18 at midnight (effectively Sunday night). The KMPX studios were in a large office building with many tenants at 50 Green Street, at the corner of Green and Front. Acording to legend, a flatbed truck was set up near the picket line and the San Francisco bands took turns providing entertainment to the strikers. Creedence Clearwater Revival take tremendous pride in claiming to be the first band on at Midnight.

I have assumed with good reason that Traffic's performance was at the KMPX strike, because
  • Traffic were hanging out with the Dead
  • KMPX and Tom Donahue were essential in making the band big stars in San Francisco
  • Bill Graham knew perfectly well that a free concert by Traffic would improve ticket sales the next weekend
Andrew Wong's remarkable photos more or less confirm all this. Although I am no expert on the exact configuration of the area in the 1960s, it appears to be somewhere near the Embarcadero, which was just one block from Green and Front, so I have reasonably assumed that the stage (ie the flatbed truck) was on Embarcadero and Green. San Francisco had been a big Union town for decades, so the police would not have interfered with an event supporting a a strike, even if it was a wee bit different than the usual Longshoreman' s even (update: I have since learned that the stage was nearby at Pier 10, near Washington and Embarcadero).

Photo Index
From what I can tell, Traffic appears to have played a set, and Jerry Garcia and a few others seemed to have joined in for "Dear Mr Fantasy." It looks like a cold, gray morning in San Francisco, which (speaking as someone who worked in Downtown San Francisco for 15 years) was like every other morning in San Francisco. Andrew Wong describes himself as an art student at CCSF who had the foresight to bring his camera, and he mentions the performance of "Dear Mr Fantasy." Presumably Traffic was one of a series of bands, if rumors are to be believed. Here is a list of the photos--all of them are worth a look.

anyone who can identify anyone else in the picture, or who actually attended this, is encouraged to Comment (for the Archive page photos, see here). 

At various times, I have seen it mentioned that the Grateful Dead played the KMPX strike stage, and perhaps they did. By the same token, the fact that Garcia was present would be enough to create the story that the Dead played. At the very least, it is incontrovertible that Garcia played with Traffic--see for yourself--and that is why I find it fairly plausible that Garcia may have sat in at some point during Traffic's two weekend stand at Winterland and the Fillmore. Since the Dead were around town, probably working on Anthem Of The Sun, Jerry must have needed to get out and play at least one night.

There were also KMPX Strike Fund Benefits at the Avalon (March 20) and Winterland (April 3) and the Grateful Dead apparently played them both. Tom Donahue and the staff of KMPX-fm moved to KSAN-fm (94.5, the "Jive 95") and achieved even more legendary status.


  1. A little correction: Dave Mason left Traffic on December 28, 1967 not in "early 1968"

  2. Fascinating! A pity Garcia didn't play with Traffic on other occasions (when tape-recorders were present....)

    Jimi Hendrix, by the way, was a big Traffic fan from early on and played with various members several times. There's even a recording of him playing Dear Mr Fantasy at Winterland, Feb 4 '68. (And later in the year, as well.)

  3. By the way - Jerry may have found it difficult to show up at one of Traffic's weekend shows. On the 15th - 17th, the Dead were playing at the Carousel; and on the weekend of March 22-23, the Dead were playing in Detroit!

    This doesn't leave Jerry much time to sit in at a Traffic show. So this daytime appearance may have been unique.

    After a brief search though, I see that Garcia did play Dear Mr Fantasy with Traffic again - in summer 1994! There's even a video.

  4. Hey everyone, there's even more never before seen pics from this event on my facebook page that i didn't get around to publishing 'til recently...☮♥☮♥☮ aw

  5. Andrew, are those pictures accessible? It turns out there are a lot of Andrew Wongs on Facebook (as you probably know), so I didn't know where to begin.

    Do you recall any other bands who played?

  6. cory342,try searching by my email

  7. Nitpicking point, but the 1st photo says Stevie is playing a Telecaster. It's a Stratocaster.

  8. Thanks Jeff, I changed the [virtual] caption to say Stratocaster.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Alas, the links to the pix are dead ...

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Actually, the event photographed didn’t occur on a pier. The truck was parked alongside a building on the east side of Front Street between Green and Vallejo. This can be deduced from Andrew Wong’s photos looking northwest at Chris Wood (where 1001 Front Street is behind him) and Jeff Blankfort’s photos looking southwest (where the 847 Front Street garage is behind Chris, along with the Broadway offramp of the Embarcadero Freeway). The front of Pier 19 can also be seen in the background of some of Andrew’s photos, placing the event due south of that. The band is facing west, and seem to be in the sun - which implies it’s the afternoon, so perhaps this was the weekend street fair.