(this post is part of a series analyzing every show at the Fillmore East)
June 14-15, 1968 Grateful Dead/Jeff Beck Group/Seventh Sons
Although this was The Grateful Dead’s first weekend at The Fillmore East, they had already played New York numerous times, including twice at this venue when it was still called The Village Theater (December 26-27, 1967). On the previous trip, the theater was in such poor repair that snow actually came through the roof onto the stage, and the show was not a pleasant experience for anyone involved. A return to Bill Graham's newly refurbished rock palace promised better things for the Dead. Nonetheless, legend has it that for the early show the first night, the then largely unknown Jeff Beck Group blew them away.
Generally, each Fillmore East bill played 4 times, with early and late shows on both Friday and Saturday nights. The first Friday night show was generally the show attended by journalists, industry people and scene makers, so the effect of a good early show on Friday could have powerful implications, even if the late show presented an entirely different picture. The story about the Jeff Beck Group "blowing away" the Grateful Dead at their mutual Fillmore East debuts has been repeated so many times that I don't know the original source of it (I myself read it first in review of a Rod Stewart album in Rolling Stone in the early 1970s).
In June of 1968, The Jeff Beck Group had been touring England for 16 months, but although they had released a few singles their first album (Truth) would not come out for two more months. Beck was playing the Fillmore on the basis of his Yardbirds status and English live reputation. Already English managers were seeing how establishing a live reputation in America could set the table for a successful album. The original Jeff Beck Group pretty much laid out the blueprint for heavy English rock, with a bluesy power trio that included a dynamic lead singer and a sensational guitarist over a lively rhythm section. Beck had played America before with the Yardbirds, but for the rest of his band it was not only their American debut but the Fillmore East was the largest room they had ever played in.
The story goes that for a Friday early show heavily populated with industry types, journalists and scenemakers, after an unmemorable opening set by The Seventh Sons (see below), the Jeff Beck Group came out and played searing, powerful blues. Oddly, however, only Beck, bassist Ron Wood and drummer Mickey Waller were visible, while a rich, gravelly voice seemed to emanate from nowhere. Supposedly, it was only after a few numbers and thunderous ovations that a shy, frizzy haired Rod Stewart would step out in front of the amplifiers, relieved that he was going to be a success in big, bad America. The Jeff Beck Group thundered through the rest of their set, and when the Grateful Dead came on, the industry crowd found them to be a big letdown.
How much truth might their be to this delicious story? In the first place, although there has been very little officially released evidence, the original 1968 Jeff Beck Group sound pretty awesome to me even now, and through the exceptional Fillmore East sound system it must have been something indeed. These days, we tend to think of Beck's various jazzy excursions, and Stewart's rather schmaltzy dabbling in popular songs, but we forget that Beck wrote the book on the English Telecaster blues, and Stewart can sing the hell out of anything. While the Yardbirds had many partisan fans inclined to like Beck, they can hardly have had an idea of how exceptional the new group was, because the album had not yet been released.
It is also hard to remember that the heavy-singer-plus-trio was not yet a rock convention. Trios improvised like Cream or Hendrix, and some bands like The Who featured lead singers and three musicians, but no one was doing both at this high of a level. Led Zeppelin would perfect this model, becoming the heaviest of the heavy, mixing memorable songs with wild jamming, but this was six months prior to Zeppelin's descent on American shores, as Jimmy Page had just broken up the Yardbirds a few weeks earlier. Thus New York's rock cognoscenti heard not just a great band, but a whole new style of music and a future popular superstar all in one unexpected blast. Given that in the 1968 configuration the Grateful Dead only played one set each show at the Fillmore East, I don't doubt that as they would have just been shaking the cobwebs off, the Dead were somewhat of an anticlimax after the Jeff Beck Group thunderbolt.
The part of this story I have never quite believed is the business of shy little Rod Stewart hiding behind the amplifiers for the first three numbers, because he had stage fright. Stewart had been a professional singer for at least three years by this time, and even if the Fillmore East was the biggest room he had ever played in, it wasn't Buckingham Palace. Since I don't know the source of this oft-repeated story, I can't say what prompted it, but I have to think it was more along the lines that whoever initially wrote about it had their sightline blocked until Stewart moved around some on stage. I just don't see Rod Stewart as the nervous little wallflower, but its such a good story that even he doesn't want to deny it.
In June 1968, the Grateful Dead were at a peculiar crossroads. They had been underground legends for two years, but they had only released one poorly-received album (their debut on Warner Bros, released in March 1967). Over a year between albums was simply unheard of in the 1960s; in 1967, for example The Beatles released two albums. The band had been struggling with the ground-breaking mixture of live and studio recordings that would make up their next album, Anthem Of The Sun, released in July 1968, but no one knew that at the time.
For all the revisionist history that makes the Dead and Bill Graham seem like allies from the beginning, in fact the band and Graham had a complex, contested relationship. The Dead had spent most of 1968 operating the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco as a direct competitor to Graham's Fillmore operation. Around the month of June, Graham had flown to Ireland to negotiate directly with the owner of the Carousel, and he managed to effectively steal the lease out from under The Dead. Graham was taking over the financially ailing Carousel to rename it the Fillmore West, undoing the Dead's plans for financial independence, and yet here was Graham booking the Dead in New York City. Fortunately, however much certain financial matters intervened, the Dead and Graham had always gotten along personally, so the finances didn't interfere with a high profile booking at Fillmore East.
Ironically, I believe the winners in this little story are those who attended Friday's late show. Since it was not the "industry" show, there are no eyewitness accounts that I am aware of. There is, however, a well recorded audience tape of the Grateful Dead's late show performance, and it is absolutely scorching. People forget that the affable and generous Jerry Garcia was a ferociously competitive and ambitious man with a guitar in his hands. Garcia has always acknowledged being a Beck fan, and he can not have missed the Jeff Beck Group's sensational performance. After a flat opening set by the Dead, and after what was no doubt another monster set by Beck in the late show, Garcia was not going to let it go unchallenged. After some roaring feedback, the Dead opened with a high-energy version of their most difficult song, "The Eleven" followed by a wild psychedelic medley ("St. Stephen">"Alligator">"Turn On Your Lovelight">"Caution"), and the train never stops rolling. Now that must have been some show: Jeff Beck revising heavy rock music, and The Dead showing Manhattan they hadn't been resting on their laurels the previous year.
There are almost no accounts of either Beck's or The Dead's performances on Saturday night. The one interesting tidbit comes from a memory that the Dead introduced "Dark Star" to New York on Saturday night, with Weir dedicating the song to jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, who had died earlier that day (June 15). It is outside of the scope of this blog to discuss Wes Montgomery's greatness as an electric guitar player, but there would be no Bob Weir without him, and it is appropriate that the only known "dedication" of the Dead's signature song was to such a great musician on the night of his death.
Appendix: The Seventh Sons
The Seventh Sons were a Greenwich Village based band featuring guitarist Buzzy Linhart. Linhart was well-regarded by other musicians, and released a few little known albums, but I don't know what the Seventh Sons sounded like. I believe that the Friday early show usually featured an "audition" band, generally a local group, who did not perform the other shows. I think the Seventh Sons are only known to have played due to the widespread story of Rod Stewart's American debut, and I doubt their name appeared on the marquee.
Next: June 21-22, 1968 Vanilla Fudge (21)/Georgie Fame (22)/James Cotton Blues Band/The Loading Zone