Friday, October 22, 2021

June 4-7, 1970 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Southern Comfort (San Francisco Evening)

In this century, fans reflect upon Grateful Dead shows as a function of the surviving recordings. Thinly attended shows in out-of-the-way places have become legendary thanks to an amazing recording, while powerful sold-out live events might have little resonance without a good tape. The Grateful Dead's four-night performance at the Fillmore West on the weekend of June 4-7, 1970 falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. There are decent recordings of fairly complete shows, so the performances haven't been forgotten. On the other hand, based on what came before and after, the tapes do not mark themselves as exceptional. As a result, while I'm sure these shows get some listens, no one really thinks about the events themselves. This post will consider what was interesting and important about the Fillmore West June weekend shows at the time.

June 4-7, 1970 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/New Riders of The Purple Sage/Southern Comfort (Thursday-Sunday)
  • These June shows were the San Francisco introduction to the "Evening Of The Grateful Dead" concept. In May, the Dead had toured the East Coast and provided all the music, with an acoustic Grateful Dead set, then the New Riders of The Purple Sage and then the full electric Grateful Dead. San Francisco had seen bits and pieces of all these ensembles in various places and configurations, but not all in one show.
  • The New Riders of The Purple Sage had not played at a Bill Graham show in San Francisco up until this time, strange as it may seem. This was the Riders first time opening for the Grateful Dead at a BGP concert in the Bay Area.
  • Workingman's Dead had not formally been released, but it was already being played on KSAN. It may have also been available in a few hip record stores. So these shows were the first time that regular concert-goers may have come to the show with the expectation that the Dead were evolving from psychedelic adventurers to cosmic cowboys. 
  • The group Southern Comfort opened the show. Their new album had been co-produced by one John Kahn. Kahn had been jamming with Jerry Garcia, Howard Wales and Bill Vitt on Monday nights over at the Matrix. He had probably jammed with Garcia about six times prior to this weekend. While its reasonable to suspect that Kahn had seen the Grateful Dead before, it's all but certain that this would have been the first time Kahn had seen the Dead since he had started jamming with Garcia. 

An Evening With The Grateful Dead

It is little remarked that in the early years of the Fillmore and Fillmore West, the Grateful Dead followed the performance patterns of every other band at the Fillmore. They played two sets, yes, but so did every other act listed on the poster. More distinctly, bands played in order, so the headliner would do the third and sixth set of the evening. Commercially, this meant that high schoolers and suburbanites could come early and leave early, and still see all three bands. Late arrivers, such as those who might work at a restaurant, could check in by 11:00pm and also see all the bands. So while some patrons stayed through six sets, most fans came, saw all three bands once, and went home, essentially allowing Graham to sell tickets all night.

The most famous Grateful Dead performances at the Fillmore West, possibly the best, and certainly the best-recorded, was four nights from February 27 through March 2, 1969. All eight sets were recorded in 16 tracks, and not only formed the core of Live/Dead, but were all released on the 2005 10 cd Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings box. All eight Dead sets are fantastic, but listening to them in sequence is misleading. Two other bands played sets in between each Dead sets, so the audience experience of a Grateful Dead concert was not at all the immersive experience it would be from the 1970s onwards.

The last time the Grateful Dead played the Fillmore West with a round-robin configuration was June 6-8, 1969, with the Glass Family and Junior Walker and The All-Stars. At some point in the Summer of 1969, the Fillmore West changed its rotation. Opening acts opened, and the headliner came on last, and no one came on after them. When the Grateful Dead had played Winterland with the Jefferson Airplane on the weekend of October 24-26, 1969, while they alternated closing duties, each band only played one set. Opening act the Sons Of Champlin played a set and did not re-appear later, as they would have in previous years. From what I can discern, this pattern was being followed by Graham at other Fillmore West concerts as well. The Dead returned to the Fillmore West in December of 1969 (December 4-7), supported by Humble Pie and The Flock, but due to the Altamont debacle, no one remembers those shows at all.

Prior to the June '70 shows, the Grateful Dead had played two weekend stands that year at Fillmore West. From February 5 through 8, 1970, the Dead had headlined Fillmore West over two Southern California acts, Taj Mahal and Big Foot. Taj Mahal doesn't seem like a major act now, but at the time he seemed to be a rising star. He had released three albums on Columbia, a major label, and he got regular airplay on KSAN. Mahal fronted a killer band, too, with Jesse Ed Davis on lead guitar. So from the point of view of a rock fan in February 1970, Taj Mahal was worthy of attention. The Dead came on after Taj and did their thing until the hall closed each night.

From April 9-12, 1970, the Grateful Dead headlined over Miles Davis and Stone The Crows. Once again, the Dead played one long set after Miles. While Miles Davis was already a legend by 1970, and the Grateful Dead certainly thought of him that way, from a rock concert point of view he didn't sell as many tickets as the headliners. Still, the event was treated as a sort of double bill of equals, even if the Dead were bringing more of the crowd. Throughout late 1969 and first half 1970, the Dead had played numerous other shows around San Francisco and the Bay Area, at various venues for various promoters. At pretty much all of the venues, the band had shared the bill with different acts, and played a single extended set, usually closing out the evening. 

The June Fillmore West shows would turn out to be different in another way, although the fans would not have known that until afterwards. Major Bay Area shows, at Fillmore West and elsewhere, typically had three acts on the bill. The June shows had Southern Comfort and The New Riders billed under the Grateful Dead. While Southern Comfort was a typical opening act--more on them below--after their no-doubt brief set beginning at 8:30 it was all Grateful Dead. There was a New Riders set, an acoustic set and an electric set. Garcia and Hart were part of the New Riders, and Dawson and Nelson periodically joined in for the acoustic set, so from about 9:30 pm onwards, the same 9 musicians were providing the music until about 2:00am. An evening indeed with the Grateful Dead.

Following the June shows, this became the pattern for the Grateful Dead in San Francisco, and ultimately elsewhere. Other than big outdoor shows, benefits or special events, if you went to see the Grateful Dead, the evening's entertainment was provided by the Grateful Dead. Sometimes, particularly in the early 70s, there might be an opening act for some reason, but once the Grateful Dead came on stage, they didn't leave. Initially, the Grateful Dead aura was expanded to include not only the New Riders but James and The Good Brothers or the Rowan Brothers, but those too faded away. The Dead themselves expanded from one electric set to two, or even three, and the need for any additional acts was remaindered. Like most Deadheads, once the Dead came on stage, I didn't want the spell broken by some other band, even if they were a band I liked. The "Evening With The Grateful Dead" concept had been tried in May out on the road, but at home it began in earnest in June 1970 at Fillmore West.

The New Riders Of The Purple Sage

Jerry Garcia, John Dawson and David Nelson had started the New Riders of The Purple Sage in the Summer of 1969. The New Riders had played the few little rock clubs around the Bay Area, and the Dead had experimented with having the Riders as their opening act. Yet for whatever reasons, the New Riders of The Purple Sage did not play a San Francisco Bill Graham show until June 1970. The Dead had gone on the road with the New Riders in May. Mostly they had played colleges. The New Riders of The Purple Sage were listed in a few local newspapers and the like, although no one in New York or Massachusetts would have had any idea who they were.

Yet the New Riders had never played a Bill Graham show in San Francisco. I don't think this represented any complicated conspiracy, rather just a matter of timing. Still, it's an oddity I hadn't considered until now. When the Grateful Dead had played the Fillmore East, however, on Friday, May 15, 1970, Graham listed the bill as "The Grateful Dead featuring the New Riders of The Purple Sage." There were early and late shows at Fillmore East, and the band did their three sets--acoustic, Riders and electric--two times over. It must have been OK with Bill, because he booked that lineup at Fillmore West. The New Riders, even without Garcia, would go on to play for Bill Graham many, many times. But it all started here in June, 1970. 

(Note: Some songs from the June 4 and June 5, 1970 New Riders' performances were released by the Owsley Stanley Foundation on the excellent 5-disc Dawn Of The New Riders of The Purple Sage box set)

Workingman's Dead

We tend to view the arc of the Grateful Dead's music through their live tapes, and that's an appropriate way to evaluate them. Very few Grateful Dead fans back in the 60s, however,  would have been able to have any such perspective. Even those few people in San Francisco lucky enough to have gotten to go to multiple concerts would have had only a few whiffs of how the Grateful Dead were evolving at any given moment. Even that would have depended on which shows they had happened to attend.  

From today's perspective, we know that the Grateful Dead's psychedelic adventuring in late '68 and early '69 was starting to be refined by some jangly country sounds. In late '69, going to a Grateful Dead concert and expecting "The Other One" must have led to some cognitive dissonance when you heard "Dire Wolf" or "Green Green Grass Of Home." The countrified Workingman's Dead material had started to appear in mid-69, and the band recorded the album in February and March 1970. From that point of view, the shift to acoustic or semi-acoustic music, the New Riders and the twanging guitars make a lot of sense. It still would have been a surprise to contemporary listeners. 

The official Warner Brothers release date of Workingman's Dead is generally marked as June 14, 1970. In those days, record release dates were generally more casual. Lots of stores probably already had Workingman's Dead by June 4, and would have been selling them to interested patrons. It's known that the Dead had shared a tape of an early mix of Workingman's with KSAN, so the album had been played on the radio. By June 1, KSAN would have probably had an advance promotional copy anyway. So hip rock fans listening to KSAN, at home or in their car, would have gotten a taste of Workingman's Dead already. Thus, kicking off an acoustic set with "Dire Wolf" or an electric one with "Casey Jones" wouldn't have been quite as unexpected as it might have been, even if the songs themselves weren't that familiar yet.

It is a truism of Grateful Dead culture that the definitive recording of the Summer of 1970 is the Pacifica Radio broadcast from SUNY Binghamton, recorded on May 2, 1970. It was widely bootlegged for decades, and the Grateful Dead portion was released in its entirety on the epic 1997 3-cd set Dick's Picks Vol. 8. It's one of the greatest nights of the Grateful Dead, and well deserving of the reverence in which it's held. In this context, however, it's critical to remember that the May 2 show was not broadcast on Pacifica affiliates--KPFA in Berkeley, WBAI in New York,  and so on--until later in June. As near as I can tell, the broadcast date was June 21, 1970. The important point here is that from June 4-7, even the most devoted of Deadheads would have had no awareness of the band's performance on May 2. Anything they heard in June would not have been compared to Binghamton until later.

Howard Wales and Jerry Garcia preparing for Hooteroll (from the back cover of the 1971 LP)

Southern Comfort and John Kahn
John Kahn was not just Jerry Garcia's bass player from 1970-1995, he was also his partner and musical Straw Boss, putting together bands and keeping them rolling. Garcia made it clear that the Jerry Garcia Band was really the Jerry Garcia and John Kahn Band. Without Kahn, Garcia could not have made the JGB the nearly full-time aggregation that it turned out to be, given Garcia's commitment to the Grateful Dead. Kahn, however, articulate and charming as he was, was rarely interviewed. When he was, it was almost always about his work with Garcia and the Garcia Band. As a result, many topics were never pursued, and are left to speculation.

One question that, to my knowledge, was never asked of Kahn was "when did you first see the Grateful Dead?" Now, Kahn had moved to San Francisco in Fall '66 to attend San Francisco Conservatory. He had known musicians ever since, and had been working professionally since mid-67. Musicians get around, so I figured he had at least seen the Dead somewhere, since they played so much. The really interesting question, also never asked of Kahn, was "after you had started jamming with Jerry Garcia, when did you next see the Grateful Dead?" 

I have looked into the chronology of Kahn's introduction to Garcia, and the best triangulation suggests that they jammed together for the first time at The Matrix on Monday, April 13, 1970. It looks like Kahn, Garcia, organist Howard Wales and drummer Bill Vitt had played the Matrix together six times by June 1, 1970. It's true that the June Fillmore West shows would have been the Dead's first local performances since the jamming had started, and Garcia would surely have invited Kahn. That's not the interesting part, though. 

Opening act Southern Comfort was a San Francisco band, who had just released their debut album on Columbia. The album had been assigned to veteran producer Nick Gravenites, but Gravenites had turned the project over to John Kahn. So for the June Fillmore West shows, not only had Kahn been jamming with Garcia, Kahn was co-producer of the band opening the concert. Although Southern Comfort had been around for a year, they too were debuting at Fillmore West, so you know their co-producer would have been there.

Pictures of Bob Jones, from his time as a guitarist in the We Five, to the 70s as a drummer with Mike Bloomfield, and finally in 2010 in retirement in Hawaii

Bob Jones, John Kahn and Southern Comfort
How Kahn became the producer of Southern Comfort and also Jerry Garcia's bass player are in fact two strands of the same story. I have dealt with both at some length, so I won't repeat every detail (follow the links for true journeys down those rabbit holes), but the June Fillmore West concerts turn out to be a convergence of different threads, so it's worth a brief re-visit.

Bob Jones (1947-2013) had played 12-string guitar and sang harmony vocals in a 60s group called The We Five. They had a huge, worldwide hit in 1965 with Ian and Sylvia Tyson's "You Were On My Mind," which sold millions of copies. Still, the We Five broke up, and Jones formed bands in San Francisco with John Kahn and a few others, first the R&B styled T and A Blues Band in 1967 and then the more bluesy Memory Pain in 1968. In the meantime, Kahn and Jones would go around to local jam sessions. Although Jones was a guitar player, Kahn would always ask him to bring a drum set (they shared a house with drummer John Chambers) and play it. Jones would complain that "he wasn't a drummer," but, as he told interviewer Jake Feinberg in the 21st century, he was "Kahned into drumming." 

At a jam session in Novato around late 1968, famous guitarist Mike Bloomfield stuck his head into the room, and enquired who was drumming and who was singing. When he found out that it was the same guy, Bob Jones had a new job. Jones considered himself a guitarist, but Bloomfield liked his drumming, and wanted to use him as a singer as well. Bloomfield had recently left the high-profile Electric Flag,just as he had left the high-profile Paul Butterfield Blues Band before that. Bloomfield was the first SF rock star to play regularly in smaller nightclubs, a practice later picked up by Jerry Garcia, Jorma and Jack, Van Morrison and others.

Bloomfield wouldn't rehearse. If a club date was booked, singer Nick Gravenites would call up a few players and they would back him up. The "first call" lineup for Mike Bloomfield would generally include Gravenites on vocals and rhythm guitar, Bob Jones on drums and vocals, and Kahn on bass. Sometimes keyboard players (such as organist Ira Kamin or pianist Mark Naftalin) might be included, or a horn player as well. If one of the regulars couldn't make it, a substitute was called in. No one was rehearsing anyway, so subs were no problem. Thus the original connection to Kahn and Bloomfield was through Bob Jones, because he had been "Kahned" into drumming at a jam session.

In 1969, San Francisco was the hottest place in the record industry, and a lot of records were being recorded at studios in town. Gravenites was a key producer, since he was well-known from having been in Electric Flag. Gravenites regularly called on Kahn and Jones, among others, for recordings (which incidentally is how they both ended up on the Brewer And Shipley's hit single "One Toke Over The Line," produced by Gravenites). It is a testament to Bob Jones' musical talent that he took so readily to professional drumming without any real background.

Around May, 1969, Jones and some other local musicians formed a band modeled on Booker T and The MGs. The idea was that they would be a complete studio ensemble, and also record and perform their own music. The name of the band was Southern Comfort. The band members were:

Fred Burton-lead guitar [aka Fred Olson, his given name]
Ron Stallings-tenor sax, vocals
John Wilmeth-trumpet
Steve Funk-keyboards
Art Stavro-bass
Bob Jones-drums, vocals

Ron Stallings had been in the T&A Blues Band with Kahn and Jones. He would turn up later with Kahn in Reconstruction in 1979. Southern Comfort was signed to an advance by Columbia Records, and Gravenites was signed up as the producer. At this period of time, Gravenites was also working with Mike Bloomfield, Brewer And Shipley and later Danny Cox (who shared management with Brewer And Shipley).

The Southern Comfort band members received modest advances (probably in the high 4 figures). Bob Jones told me in a private email that his parents persuaded him not to spend his advance on a car or new gear--typical musician choices--but instead to buy a house. As a result, Jones bought a two-story house in Fairfax. Jones and his family lived upstairs, and he rented out the downstairs flat to another musician. 

Bob Jones' tenant was drummer Bill Vitt, who had recently returned to the Bay Area after time on the road and as a Los Angeles session musician. Good drummers are always in demand, so Vitt was immediately popular. Not only did Vitt get studio calls from Gravenites, when there was a conflict between a local Southern Comfort booking and a Mike Bloomfield gig, Vitt was the "second call" drummer. As Southern Comfort played around more in 1969 and '70, Vitt got more calls for the Bloomfield band. 

In March 1970, when Bill Vitt and organist Howard Wales were running the Monday night jam sessions at the Matrix, Jerry Garcia--who had already jammed with Howard Wales--found he enjoyed dropping in. Vitt had invited a symphonically trained bassist (Richard Favis), but it hadn't worked out. So the next weekend--probably April 13--he invited John Kahn. It worked out. If Jones hadn't been in Southern Comfort, if his parents hadn't persuaded him to buy a house, if he hadn't rented it to Vitt, it's not likely that the Vitt/Kahn connection would have been made. But it was.

According to Jones, Nick Gravenites found himself over-committed in the studio, and turned the production of the Southern Comfort album over to John Kahn. Kahn and Jones were close friends, so this was fine with the band. Gravenites had been using the musically trained Kahn as an arranger and orchestrator anyway, so this was more like a promotion rather than a new assignment. Kahn was listed as co-producer on the Southern Comfort album, and he filled in a few gaps--co-writing songs, helping with arrangements, playing piano--but not playing bass.  Columbia released the Southern Comfort album in mid-1970. Opening for a major band at Fillmore West was exactly how big labels liked to promote their bands. I'm sure Kahn was there, probably multiple nights. It would have been a pretty interesting evening for him, hearing the band he had just produced, and then hearing the band with the guy he was jamming with.

You don't need me to listen to old Grateful Dead tapes. The Dead sets for June 4-7, 1970 are fairly intact, and seem pretty good, though not epic. When you're listening to them, however, imagine Garcia wailing away, and a guy on the side of a stage, with a mustache, nodding his head and looking on, thinking about how he might be able to work together with Garcia, if things played out right.