Thursday, February 2, 2012

February 4, 1970: Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Santana/Kimberly (A Night At The Family Dog)

The dvd A Night At The Family Dog, recorded February 4, 1970
The Grateful Dead's performance at Chet Helms' Family Dog on The Great Highway on February 4, 1970 is fairly well known today. An hour long video of concert highlights, originally broadcast on Public Television, has since been re-released on DVD as A Night At The Family Dog. In 2004, the Grateful Dead released the recording of their entire set from that night. Thus both the audio and some video are available from the show, a rare and potent combination. However, while the music is well-covered, and video is available, very little has been recalled about the circumstances of the actual event itself. Even the Dead's cd release is scarce on details. Having uncovered a fairly detailed review of the event, this post will consider the February 4, 1970 concert as an event rather than a recording.
Ralph Gleason's San Francisco Chronicle column from February 6, 1970
The Family Dog show on February 4, 1970, was a staged event for Public Television with an invited audience. The music was no less enjoyable for that, but the event itself was not a real concert, even though the excellent music was real and live. Public Television wanted to have a special show on San Francisco bands in their home setting, and chose to rent the Family Dog to put on the show. Ralph J. Gleason co-produced the special, and he reports from both the sound truck and the concert itself, although he somewhat disingenuously never indicates his organizer's role. The show was filmed on February 4, 1970 and broadcast nationwide in April of that year, possibly on April 27. With only three commercial networks and the occasional independent station, Public Television shows were widely watched in a way that would be unfathomable today. I assure you that the PBS Night At The Family Dog special was watched by young people nationwide in large numbers, and was probably influential in suggesting that events like this went on in San Francisco all the time. Certainly, if you were in cold Des Moines or windy El Paso and saw Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Santana sharing the stage, everybody dancing and a big jam afterwards, it would make you believe that San Francisco was the promised land indeed.

Of course, the San Francisco scene that PBS was celebrating had already gone national some years earlier. The Family Dog, with a capacity of about 1500, was far from downtown (at 660 Great Highway), and all three major bands had largely outgrown the place. After Chet Helms had had to close the Avalon at the end of 1968, he had re-opened on the Great Highway, but it was never a successful venture. The Grateful Dead headlined there regularly, but it was a less lucrative gig for them than Fillmore West. The Airplane played there too, but they were so big that their shows there were not even advertised. Santana, already huge stars by 1970, would never play the Family Dog except for this one special. In 1970, when three big local bands played together, they would play the much larger Winterland (capacity 5400). The Family Dog was more photogenic, however, and so the hall was rented on a Wednesday night for the TV special. Ralph Gleason of the Chronicle attended, and described the event in part of his Friday column, which I will reproduce here (since you can hardly read the scan, I will transcribe it all).
"Do you have a set schedule for what's going to happen?" the technician asked Bob Zagone of KQED. "We don't have a set schedule for anything, Zagone said. 'We have a loose schedule."

They were in the KQED mobile video tape recording truck outside the Family Dog. Several other trucks and a generator, roaring away like a power drill, were set up in the parking lot. Zagone and the KQED crew were getting ready to videotape a Jefferson Airplane party at the Family Dog for National Educational Television.

There's a young band called 'Kimberly' going on stage starting in a few minutes," Zagone said. "The it will be Santana. After that I don't know what's going to happen."
The Family Dog special was scheduled on a Wednesday night, because the Dog would otherwise be dark, and the bands would not likely be working. Although I assume the bands got union scale and some expenses, it's unlikely they were paid for this show. It would have been done for publicity, but it would have been well worth it. The band Kimberly was associated with Santana's management, but they were not part of the TV special. I assume Kimberly were just there to showcase themselves to the heavyweight invited crowd.

The Grateful Dead had just come back from a grueling tour. They would open at the Fillmore West the next night (Thursday February 5) and then take off for New York and the Fillmore East (starting Wednesday February 11). Nonetheless, the band found time to saddle up and play for this show, despite having been busted down in Bourbon Street, and playing a gig in St. Louis right after that (as a footnote, the Family  Dog show was Sam Cutler's official debut as Grateful Dead tour manager). Lew Welch's comment suggests that there were considerably fewer people than at a normal sold-out night at the Dog, another indicator of an invited crowd. The show itself was not publicized in any way that I am aware of, as it was not a public event in that sense.
Gleason, Chronicle, Feb 6 '70 part 2
 The cables were strung all along the sidewalk and into the hall and the huge TV cameras on dollies were rolling back and forth through the place in the wild assembly of San Francisco hip society.

On stage the musicians were plugging in their guitars and tuning. In a little while Kimberly, a neat, melodic band, began. Light men experimented with different combinations. Rock critics wandered through the hall. "It has the right feeling tonight," Mike Goodwin of Rolling Stone said. And poet Lew Welch pointed out that it was one of the few times in recent memories that you could actually get close to a band and not be jammed by the press of a crowd.

After Kimberly, Santana took over and the rhythms of the drums and the bass melded with the guitar and conga drum and rose to an incredible [something]. It ended with Santana almost leaning over backwards, hitting the guitar strings and bassist David Brown, his eyes squeezed shut, flailing away at the guitar. The crowd screamed. Out in the truck, Bob Zagone complained "we're not getting that audience noise" and Bob Matthews, who was doing the sound, whipped out a mike and set it up taping the audience.
The presence of Bob Matthews indicates that Alembic Engineering was hired to do the recording, an excellent choice. Matthews name does not appear on the Download Series cd, nor does anyone else's, I suspect because no one recalled that he was the engineer. I'm no taper, but does Matthews' use of an audience mic make the Family Dog tape an early 'Matrix Tape'?
Gleason, Chronicle, Feb 6 '70 part 3
"We'll go dark as they start their set and bring the light up gradually," Zagone said and the Grateful Dead began. In the truck the multiple images on the little screens made a fascinating montage. Jerry Garcia's face silhouetted but still clear, approached the mike on the screen and he began to sing. The little screens that showed the pictures [of] the various cameras were registering, flicked from one to another. "Gimme a two shot," Zagone said, "Let's see both those guitars."

Out in the crowd, which was dancing or sitting on the floor and around the sides of the stage, John Carpenter of the L.A. Free Press said "when is it going to be aired?" and hoped a definite date could be set. The man from N.E.T said probably in April. "It's a good night," Carpenter said. "I had forgotten what San Francisco was really like. I've seen people I haven't seen in years."

On stage, the band was into those rhythmic phrases that make the Dead such groovy dance music and several girls were dancing behind the band and on one side. Still photographers leaped up from the audience and shot pictures like the paparazzi in "Z."
The structure of the evening seemed to have been that Kimberly played a brief set, and then the three featured acts played single sets. Since the existing Dead tape is an hour, that must be their whole show, and I assume that Santana and the Airplane played sets of equal length. For an event like this, there would have been no concept of encores, regardless of how well a band went over. I would not be surprised if the house lighting had been a little different as well, in order to benefit the cameras, although I don't know how exactly. The fact that Bob Matthews was on the board does suggest that the sound system was first rate, however, even if the TV could hardly have broadcast such a wide dynamic range.
Gleason, Chronicle, Feb 6 '70 part 4
Then the Airplane came on and Grace smiled and Marty sang "Do you want to know a secret, just between you and me," and the lights flickered off the sweat on his forehead as he sang and Spencer drove into the drums with a fierce concentration and Jorma sang "Good Shepherd" and the crowd gyrated and the cameras rolled back and forth.

It was a great evening. San Francisco within a week had two TV specials shot here. Both on rock. There will be more and if they end up on the screen as good as they are in person, the rest of the country will see something unique.
Gleason's final comment was correct, but not perhaps in the way that he thought. The special was broadcast on PBS stations in late April, and it must have been widely seen. Teenagers in Birmingham, Buffalo or Butte who had only discovered Santana, Volunteers or Live/Dead would have been thrilled to imagine a city where all those bands got together at night to play on the same stage in a tiny, elegant concert hall. As if that weren't enough, as we know from the video, the evening ended with a jam. We only have a brief segment, featuring Jerry, Jorma, Jack, the Santana rhythm section and Gary Duncan of Quicksilver. That, too, must have added to the legend of San Francisco: all the bands play together, and then get together on stage and jam their eyeballs out, far into the night.

Fun as the night must have been for the bands and the crowd, it was really a time capsule for an era that had passed. The bands were all on tour most of the time by then, and rarely played together. The Family Dog had struggled for its whole brief existence, and it was about to start spiraling down. Santana had never actually played the venue, save for the TV special. Jefferson Airplane had played there a number of times, as recently as the previous weekend (January 30-31). However, the Airplane had used the shows as an opportunity to break in their new drummer (Joey Covington), and the Family Dog show was the last one for Spencer Dryden, marking the end of the 'classic' Airplane that everyone associated with the sixties (Grace/Marty/Paul/Jack/Jorma/Spencer).

The Grateful Dead would have one more weekend at the Family Dog at the end of February (Feb 27-March 1), and one "Acoustic Dead" weekend billed as Mickey And The Hartbeats (April 17-19), but they too rapidly graduated from the Family Dog as well. Just as television had found the San Francisco music scene worthy of appropriate documentation, its stars had graduated to a higher plane, and the days of hanging out and jamming after everybody had played their sets went with them. Still, its nice that for a final night in February 1970, some of the Fillmore regulars got together and shared the stage like it was 1967 again, and the rest of the county got to see it, if only in its final form.

Appendix: Setlist and Release Information
Grateful Dead
Family Dog At The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
February 4, 1970
  • Hard To Handle
  • Black Peter 
  • Me and My Uncle 
  • China Cat Sunflower > 
  • I Know You Rider 
  • St. Stephen > 
  • Not Fade Away > 
  • St. Stephen > 
  • In The Midnight Hour 
  • plus: jam with Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Gary Duncan, Jack Casady, Mike Shrieve, others
A Night At The Family Dog TV show
Broadcast on Public Television stations on or about April 27, 1970
Produced by Ralph J. Gleason and Bob Zagone for National Educational Television (NET)

A Night At The Family Dog audio
Grateful Dead Download Series
Grateful Dead Records: released 2005
>>complete Grateful Dead set from 2/4/70, plus three bonus tracks from 10/5/70

A Night At The Family Dog DVD
with Grateful Dead/Jefferson Airplane/Santana
Eagle Vision: released 2007
  • Incident At Neshabur - Santana
  • Soul Sacrifice - Santana
  • Hard To Handle - Grateful Dead
  • China Cat Sunflower - Grateful Dead
  • I Know You Rider - Grateful Dead
  • The Ballad of You And Me And Pooneil - Jefferson Airplane
  • Eskimo Blue Day - Jefferson Airplane
  • Super jam featuring members of Santana, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane


  1. Well-done - it's always good to read these contemporary reviews from Gleason.

    I think the word in the Santana review is: "rose to an incredible tension."

    It's interesting that Bob Matthews was doing the sound along with the KQED crew. I believe the tape used for the Download Series release was one of the Dead's normal recordings, though, without any extra audience mic (hence not a 'matrix'), so the TV mix would have been different.

    I don't know how much attention the KQED crew would normally pay to the sound mix for a music event. Notice that Zagone's quoted requests are to get more audience noise and to adjust the lights - not, say, to adjust the guitar balance; but elements that would be more noticeable on a small TV.
    So Bob Matthews' presence may have been due to the Dead's request. The Dead did not do that many TV appearances, perhaps due to a distrust for the medium (that could be a post in itself) - and I'd imagine that as per their nature, they would have wanted an engineer on-hand who would be fussy about their sound, rather than a TV crew that would just do a quick rough mix that would be "good enough."
    (Although I seem to recall the end jam sounding pretty muddy anyway....)

  2. pbs usually cares about about good audio. now one tv truck can do audio and video simultaneously but in 1970 who knows. so to get good audio, they might have needed an audio truck. this was shot with 3 video cameras plus 1 film camera. all the slow mo - out of sync stuff is the film camera that was transferred to video and added later. personally i think they should have not the slo mo film footage. it is awkward. imho the last jam during the credits was the best part of the night. too bad more does not exist.

  3. Thank you for writing this up; I fondly remember this show and have been searching on and off for more information. This was broadcast twice as episodes of FanFare (#10 and 46) according to FanFare was an eclectic mix of usually unrelated music shows (e.g., Earl Scruggs, Shostakovich). This episode was titled “San Francisco Rock at the Family Dog” and the prior episode was “San Francisco Rock: Go Ride the Music”, maybe the same producer and same show? According to that show was Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an air date for these shows, but 1970 is about right - I remember we thought they were pretty cool to see on TV.