Thursday, March 23, 2023

December 4-7, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/The Flock/Humble Pie (x-Altamont)

A Bill Graham Presents flyer with the poster for the December 4-7, 1969 concert at Fillmore West, headlined by the Grateful Dead. On the back was a list of upcoming concerts, including Jefferson Airplane on New Year's Eve at Winterland

Here's a Grateful Dead trivia question: when did Sam Cutler first speak on stage prior to a Grateful Dead concert? I'm pretty sure that it was Thursday, December 4, 1969 at Fillmore West. At the time, he was the road manager of the Rolling Stones. Cutler was in town with the Stones because they were planning a gigantic free concert in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cutler had apparently arrived the day before (December 3), and by Thursday it appeared that the concert would be held at the recently-opened Sears Point Raceway, at Highway 37 and 121 in the Sonoma hills. On the existing tape from December 4, an unknown announcer says "Sam Cutler told you what was going on." Presumably Cutler had come on stage earlier to talk to the crowd. It was ironic that it would shortly become part of his job description, but neither Cutler nor anyone else could have foretold that.

The Grateful Dead's four-night stand at the Fillmore West, from December 4 through 7, was their fourth weekend booking at Fillmore West in 1969. Even though Fillmore West was the Dead's home court, so to speak, any reflections on the weekend are usually swallowed up by contemplation of the ensuing debacle of a concert at Altamont Speedway on Saturday, December 6. Indeed, the Dead’s Saturday night performance at Fillmore West was canceled, since the Dead were at the racetrack and most of the fans were too. It was a strange footnote that as things fell apart, the helicopters returned the band to Fillmore West, but the Dead didn't play that Saturday night.

For all the monumental importance of Altamont, however, the December Fillmore West shows remain a cipher. We only hear about Saturday night, when the Dead helicoptered back to San Francisco and didn't perform. We hear nothing at all about Thursday, Friday or Sunday. Sure, we have the tapes. Yet the tapes tell us the music that was played--always welcome--with no other context. Were the shows well attended?  How many people went to Fillmore West one of those nights, and also went to Altamont? I cannot find any trace of eyewitnesses.

This post will illuminate what we can about the actual events at the Fillmore West on the weekend of December 4-7, 1969. At the very least, the limited known facts are still indicators of trends and portents in the arc of Grateful Dead concert history. This post will look at what the how the weekend at Fillmore West shows us about how Grateful Dead concerts were evolving, without addressing the hapax legomenon of the Altamont event.

The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead had played May 2 and 3, 1969 (Friday and Saturday) at Winterland, supported by Mongo Santamaria. Mongo, Cold Blood and Elvin Bishop were at Fillmore Thursday and Sunday

The Grateful Dead/Bill Graham Presents 1969

The Grateful Dead had been headlining concerts for Bill Graham Presents since October 1966 at the Fillmore. This status had continued when Graham moved to the Fillmore West in July 1968. These December 1969 shows were the fourth weekend in 1969 at which the Dead had headlined the Fillmore West. Grateful Dead performances for Bill Graham Presents were an evolving process, as always, but since both the Dead and Bill Graham established the future of the rock concert industry, any evolution in their arrangements had implications for the profession as a whole. Up until this December weekend, Grateful Dead shows at Fillmore West had followed the same pattern as the Fillmore Auditorium shows that had preceded them. 

At Fillmore and Fillmore West, there had always been three bands advertised ("On The Poster"), and they would both play two sets. In contrast to future years, however, the bands rotated throughout the night, so the headline band played the third and sixth set of the night. This allowed audiences to come and go. Suburban teenagers could come early, and city denizens who worked at restaurants and the like could come late, and all patrons could see all three bands. Some hardcore fans could stay throughout, but that was initially uncommon. Particularly in 1966-67, people went to the Fillmore (or the Avalon) because it was "The Fillmore," to see whoever happened to be booked. In many cases, the bands didn't even have records, or if they did, no radio station was playing them. Fans were just checking out the scene. If they were lucky, they caught the Grateful Dead or Quicksilver Messenger Service (or numerous other bands)  before they were known, laying down the future of rock music.

There were times that another act would be added to the bill, usually on Friday or Saturday night. Often they were bands who had played the Fillmore West Tuesday "audition nights," and recently discovered by the Bill Graham organization. These bands were rarely advertised, neither on "The Poster" nor even in daily newspaper listings. This peculiar practice explains bands who recall opening for famous groups at Fillmore West even though they were not "On The Poster." Such bands only played one set, so the headline act would play the 4th and 7th sets of the night.

The significance of the Grateful Dead's December, 1969 Fillmore West shows was that the venue evolved to a more conventional single set, evening-ending performance to conclude the show. The taped evidence suggests rather strongly that the Dead ended each night with a single extended set, rather than playing two shorter (45 minutes>one hour) sets at different points in the evening. Though unnoticed, this evolution brought the Grateful Dead into the mainstream of rock concert performers at the time. Due to the paucity of information about Fillmore West concerts in late 1969, I don't know whether the Dead were among the last or the first of performers who moved from two separated sets to one longer one.

Now, for every other promoter in 1969, whenever the Grateful Dead headlined a show, they came onstage and ended the show. In most cases, they played a single long set, plus an encore. It may be that in a few instances, the Grateful Dead played two sets--if they did that in 1969, the reason was likely equipment related--but the band still ended the show. The only times the Grateful Dead would turn the stage over was when they had two performances in the same evening. At Bill Graham's Fillmore East, for example, almost all shows (save for a few weeknight benefits) had an early and a late show, and the headliner and the opener played both shows. When the Grateful Dead had played Fillmore East with Country Joe and The Fish (and opener Sha-Na-Na), for example, on September 26-27, 1969 (Friday and Saturday), the Dead had played two sets separated by the other acts. From the point of view of the crowd, however, the bands would play single sets for each audience.

So when the Grateful Dead played single long sets at Fillmore West in December, 1969, they were stepping away from one of the factors that made the Fillmore West a unique rock performance venue. The configuration went from a nightclub-like booking, with multiple acts repeating their performances, to a concert setting, where each performer presented a single time.

The Grateful Dead at Fillmore West, 1969

January 2-5, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/Blood, Sweat & Tears/Spirit (Thursday-Sunday)
The Grateful Dead had co-headlined New Year's Eve with Quicksilver Messenger Service, with an all-night (9pm-9am) extravaganza that included It's A Beautiful Day and Santana, then both rising bands. They followed New Year's Eve with another weekend, supported by Blood, Sweat & Tears, who would go on to become one of the biggest bands of the year (their album would sell 4 million copies). Little is known about the Dead's performances this weekend.

February 19, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/Golden Toad (Wednesday) "Celestial Synapse"
The Dead played a private event on February 19, 1969, but that was a Wednesday night for an invited crowd.

February 27-March 2, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/Pentangle/Sir Douglas Quintet
This four night stand at Fillmore West was perhaps the most seminal live weekend in Grateful Dead history. The band recorded most of what would become Live/Dead, on state-of-the-art 16-track Ampex recorders. The band would release a memorable 10-cd set of the entire weekend in 2005. Grateful Dead music really doesn't get any better than this.

And yet there was more. The opening act was the English group Pentangle, a unique English ensemble, with two (mostly) acoustic guitarists, a jazzy rhyhm section and a female singer. Jerry Garcia explicitly stated a decade later that hearing Pentangle made him consider the possibility of two amplified acoustic guitars over a rock rhythm section as a sonic possibility. It would take almost another year before the Dead broke out their acoustic format, but hearing Pentangle was the catalyst.

The Dead were playing the 3rd and 6th sets of the night (and on at least one night, when Shades Of Joy opened, the 4th and 7th set). One of the byproducts of this arrangement was that the headline act had to be "in the house" when the other bands where going through their second round, so musicians had little choice but to hear each other play. Thus Garcia heard Pentangle, and it had a profound influence on future Grateful Dead acoustic configurations.

May 2-3, 1969 Winterland, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Mongo Santamaria (Friday-Saturday)
In 1969, the Grateful Dead had also played two weekends for Bill Graham Presents at Winterland, twice the size of Fillmore West (officially 5400 vs 2500), both times in conjunction with the hugely popular Jefferson Airplane. These concert weekend were configured differently than the Fillmore West shows. After any opening acts, the Dead and then Jefferson Airplane would play a single extended set. None of the bands returned for a second set.  

Jefferson Airplane were hugely popular, but the rock scene had not expanded enough that they could sell out Winterland on their own. So the Airplane and the Dead played Friday and Saturday night at Winterland, with as many tickets on sale as if they had played four nights at Fillmore West. Latin jazzer Mongo Santamaria opened the show. He would have been great, but this was more a case of Graham showcasing music he wanted to be heard, as he was a Latin jazz fan.

May 28, 1969 Winterland, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Creedence Clearwater Revival/Santana/Elvin Bishop Group/Aum/Bangor Flying Circus (Wednesday) People's Park Bail Benefit
The Dead had also played a Benefit at Winterland on May 28, 1969, with many other acts. They had only played a brief set, however, and Rolling Stone's Michael Lydon complained that the Dead "didn't get it going.

June 5-8, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/Junior Walker and The All-Stars/Glass Family (Thursday-Sunday)
The Grateful Dead headlined over Junior Walker and The All-Stars, a popular group but not a huge draw. This weekend stands out because Garcia was late one night (early set June 6) and Bill Graham insisted that Wayne Ceballos of AUM stand in for him. As if that weren't enough, for the last set of Sunday night (June 8) some experimentation by Owsley left Garcia--shall we say--"unavailable,"--so Ceballos returned with Elvin Bishop to lead a 48-minute "Turn On Your Lovelight."

October 24-26, 1969 Winterland, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Sons Of Champlin/Doug Kershaw
Jefferson Airplane were bigger than ever. They would release their sixth album on RCA, Volunteers, in early November. The album was probably already getting heavy airplay on KSAN and other FM stations by the time of the concert, and copies may have even been available in record stores. The Grateful Dead would also be releasing the classic album Live/Dead in early November. The Jefferson Airplane closed the shows on Friday and Sunday, but the Grateful Dead were the last act on Saturday night (October 25). Also on Sayturday, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash played a guest acoustic set, and Stills jammed with the Dead on "Lovelight."

The SF Examiner listing for Fillmore West on December 4, 1969

December 4-7, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/The Flock/Humble Pie
Although the Grateful Dead's December Fillmore West shows conformed with rock concert orthodoxy by concluding with a single long set, there was still some elements that were distinctive to Graham and the venue. In the 60s, every rock concert was expected to have multiple acts. In most cases, the headline act was preceded by a local band. At the Fillmore West, the openers were bands on major labels with albums to their names. Now, it's true that San Francisco bands often opened Fillmore West shows, but they too were bands with albums on major labels.

By December, the Grateful Dead had released Live/Dead and had become established enough in the Bay Area that they did not need a major support act to sell tickets. There was still an assumption, however, that a proper rock concert at Fillmore West had three bands, and that the two openers were substantial bands, even if they were not yet popular. Many, many Bay Area rock fans were proud of having gone to the Fillmore or Fillmore West and heard bands on the way up, if only so they could brag a year later "yeah I saw Santana and Chicago open for Big Brother when no one knew who they were (e.g. September 12-14 '68)." The two opening acts in December hadn't sold a lot of records, but the musicians in the band had futures on tap. 

The Flock were a unique horn band from Chicago, and they had released their debut album on Columbia back in July. Now, rock bands with a horn section were hardly unique, particularly on Columbia. Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago Transit Authority had both signed with the label back in '68, and by late '69 both bands had sold a lot of records. Other labels were signing rock bands with embedded horn sections, too, like San Francisco's own Sons Of Champlin (Capitol), The Serfs (out of Kansas, also on Capitol) and the Keef Hartley Band (on Decca, out of London).

The Flock played jazzy rock with a touch of soul and a lot of solos, pretty much the same model as for Chicago or The Sons. The special aspect of The Flock was that the principal soloist was electric violinist Jerry Goodman. Goodman was also one of the lead singers, and the band didn't have a keyboard player. Goodman was a great player, and The Flock had a very distinctive sound. Still, the Flock didn't really have many memorable songs, whereas bands like Chicago or BS&T had endlessly hummable material, whether you liked it or not.

A little bit of live material from the Flock floats around, and they were at the very least an interesting opening act (for a live example from German TV in 1970, see here). Electric violin was still pretty exotic in 1969, particularly in the context of a horn section rather than countrified music. Jerry Goodman would go on to be well-recognized as a virtuoso when he would join the original Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971 (Deadheads may recognize Goodman from the 90s jam-band Dixie Dregs). So The Flock would have made an impression as the Dead's opening act, even if in the end they didn't really make it big. At least alert fans could say a few years later that they had seen Goodman before Mahavishnu, and that is what a certain kind of mostly male rock fan lived for (I was exhibit A). 

Humble Pie, meanwhile, was a newly-formed band touted by the English rock press as a "supergroup." At the time, the Pie were all but completely unknown. Within a few years, however, Humble Pie would be Winterland (and National) headliners in their own right. Lead guitarist Peter Frampton would leave Humble Pie in late 1971 to go solo, leading to his legendary double-live album Frampton Comes Alive. After it was released in Summer '76, Frampton Comes Alive became the best-selling live album of all time (over 3 million copies sold). While its sales record has since been eclipsed (Eric Clapton's Unplugged shipped an astonishing 10 million units), Frampton Comes Alive triggered every touring rock band to release a live "Greatest Hits" style double album sometime during the 1970s. So Humble Pie turned out to be an important band, even though they were still struggling to get heard in the States back in December '69.

Humble Pie's anchors were guitarists Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton. Both were excellent singers, and handsome lads who had been "Teen Idols" in England, a frustrating experience they had both shared. Marriott had led the Small Faces, a hugely successful "Mod" band in the UK who had never made much of a splash in the States (their only US hit had been "Itchykoo Park"). Frampton had been in The Herd, not as monumental as Small Faces, but still with some hits to their name. When The Herd had broken up in late 1968, Marriott had wanted Frampton to join the Small Faces as lead guitarist. Bandmates Ian McLagan and Ronnie Lane rejected this suggestion, however. So Marriott and Frampton went off and formed Humble Pie (McLagan, Lane and drummer Kenny Jones, meanwhile, teamed up with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood to form Faces).

Marriott and Frampton added drummer Jerry Shirley and bassist Greg Ridley. Ridley had been in the underrated band Spooky Tooth, and he, too, was an excellent, soulful vocalist. With 3 strong singers and two striking guitarists, Humble Pie didn't lack for talent. In the fashion of the times, their July '69 debut album As Safe As Yesterday Is featured music that was in a rustic style that intentionally evoked Music From Big Pink. Humble Pie did not emphasize hard rock until the early 70s. The Pie were signed to Immediate Records, run by former Rolling Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham. 

At the time of the first American Humble Pie tour, Immediate was nearly bankrupt. Humble Pie's second album, the laid back Town And Country had been released in the UK, but not in the States. A few FM stations had the import, however, so Humble Pie was probably getting a little play on KSAN. Now, the Small Faces had not been big in the US, and no one would have known who The Herd were, and thus Humble Pie wouldn't have been seen as a "Supergroup." They were still a "New Thing" from England, however, and that was never nothing.

Humble Pie Live At The Whisky A-Go-Go '69, released by Castle in 2002

We actually have a pretty good idea of what Humble Pie must have sounded like in December '69, since in 2002 a Pie show was released from the Whisky A-Go-Go, recorded the very next week (on December 13-16, opening for Grand Funk Railroad). Whatever your subsequent view of hard-rocking Humble Pie, the 1969 variation had more of an R&B orientation and more pronounced movement from quiet to loud and back. They would open with a mostly-acoustic cover of the Yardbirds hit "For Your Love," followed by a mix of covers and originals. The album only has 5 tracks, but it's a good look at what the band likely sounded like at Fillmore West (for a great sample, see this 1970 German TV version of "The Sad Bag Of Shakey Jake" with all three vocalists in their prime). 

Humble Pie Live At Fillmore West December 1969

For many years, decades really, we didn't have any first-hand accounts of this weekend Fillmore West. Rather unexpectedly, a detailed description turned up in the memoir of Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley. Best Seat In The House: Drumming In The 70s with Marriott, Frampton and Humble Pie (2011; Rebeat Books) is a loving memoir of the Good Old Days when they were Bad. Of course, you have to like 60s and 70s rock in grimy detail, but that is pretty much what I live for, so I recommend it highly.

One interesting thing about Shirley's description of the Fillmore West was that he was no fan of the Grateful Dead. He has no grudge against them--he just dismisses them as being self-indulgent for playing too long. Shirley reports that Humble Pie came on in between The Flock and the Grateful Dead. I suspect this was a sign that Humble Pie was getting at least some airplay on KSAN. Shirley (chapter 8): 

The Fillmore West audiences were notoriously difficult to satisfy, and we soon found out why--they were so stoned that you could easily mistake the real culprit, barbiturates mixed with cheap red wine, for total lack of interest. The Ripples-and-reds crowd, as they were affectionately known, became our latest challenge. We were determined to leave our mark, and in this case the goal was simple: if we woke 'em up, we had scored. With this lot, the last thing in the world you wanted to do was knock 'em out!

Bill Graham ran this Fillmore with same military efficiency he was famous for at the Fillmore the beginning of December, 1969, a lot was happening in America, both musically and socially. The Charles Manson murders had occurred only months earlier, and the Stones were getting ready to play a huge free concert at Altamont, that now-famous racetrack just outside San Francisco. There was talk that the size of the crowd would outdo Woodstock (although "only" about 300,000 attended, far fewer than Woodstock's "half a million strong"), and one of the main acts on the bill was to be the Grateful Dead. Nothing wrong there, except that they were also supposed to be headliners for our third show at the Fillmore West. We were set to play the middle spot after an American band called The Flock, who had started to make some headway in the charts and featured an electric violinist who was a show all of his own. Not my cup of tea, but interesting, I suppose.

The Dead ended up not playing at Altamont because of the violence there. The problem was that the security force they had hired for the show, the Hell's Angels, who saw fit to use stabbing as a form of crowd control. The Angels killed an innocent bystander while the Stones were playing, which caused more than a little set of problems...

The Grateful Dead couldn't get out of Altamont to be at the Fillmore West. So we ended up playing our third show at Fillmore West shows as headliners, as we were the only band that could get there. The same applied to the crowd: only a very few people actually made it from Altamont, and they were so exhausted that they got in, sat down in front of the stage, and went to sleep. We must have been really impressive that night, because we managed to wake them up.  

So there you have it, such as it is: no eyewitness accounts of the Dead performances on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, although we have some tape, but a detailed memory of the night that the Dead didn't play. 

After December 1969, the Grateful Dead did not cede the stage once they got on it. They would take breaks, or play all night, as the case might have been, but there was no more rotating around the bill. The Dead would co-headline on occasion for another few months, but once Workingman's Dead got out there, the Dead were headliners in their own right. There were occasional exceptions, like giant outdoor shows or benefits, but the Grateful Dead made themselves a hard act to follow.

The Flock put out one more album (Dinosaur Swamps) and faded away. The Flock opened for the Dead again in New Orleans, when they were busted down on Bourbon Street (January 31-February 1). Jerry Goodman went on to success with Mahavishnu Orchetra, Dixie Dregs and numerous other recordings. 

Humble Pie toured successfully until 1975, even after Peter Frampton left. They had moved to A&M Records in 1970, toured hard and made themselves into a great concert attraction. Frampton left in late '71, to great success, but the Pie continued to rise in popularity. It all ground to a halt, however, and there were many financial issues with management. Steve Marriott, hugely talented and much beloved by his peers, nearly had a reunion with Peter Frampton and a reformed Humble Pie in 1991. The project was put on hold, however, and Marriott died in a fire in 1991, deeply mourned by the public and his friends.


  1. Thanks Corry! Fantastic stuff as always. I very much enjoy reading every post you guys make here. Please, please keep 'em coming! :-)

  2. It's great to see an eyewitness confirmation that Humble Pie still showed up to play the Fillmore West on the day of Altamont. (We were wondering about that a while ago.) Only a few people in the audience, as you might expect!
    Jerry Shirley doesn't sound like a fan of the laid-back San Francisco audiences....or the jam-heavy Bay Area style. (He had this in common with several other visiting rock musicians from England. As he suggests, the usual solution was just to rock harder than the SF competition.)

    Meanwhile, McNally narrates how the evening went for the Dead after they fled Altamont:
    "The Dead still had a show to do that night at the Fillmore West. McIntire did his best to soothe everybody's nerves with food and drink, taking them to Grison's, a fancy San Francisco steakhouse. Toward the end of the meal, Kreutzmann arose and announced that he wasn't playing, and he and Susila left. 'If Billy's not playing, neither am I,' added Mickey. Poor McIntire was left to journey down Van Ness Avenue to the hall to tell Graham's manager, Paul Barratta, that the Dead were a no-show. Frantic, Barratta offered the audience free tickets to other shows." (LST p.348)

    Otherwise, these December shows mark the Fillmore West shift toward the Dead playing long single two-hour sets (which would remain the norm until the Dead started splitting their own sets into shorter sets in June '70). Possibly the incidents in June '69 with Garcia showing up late & the entire band getting wasted on LSD convinced Graham that early sets had become unwise!

    But there's one correction: in the May '69 Winterland shows, the bands played the revolving first set/second set arrangement. For instance, Ralph Gleason reports on May 2 that the sequence was [Mongo]/Dead/Airplane/Mongo/Dead/Airplane, going to 4 AM. (The May 3 tape we have is of the Dead's short first set.) Graham (or the bands) must have decided that long single sets would work better when they played Winterland in Oct '69.