“Fillmore” – Much Graham, some music

Picture 2Carlos Santana’s instrument is the guitar, Ian Anderson’s the flute, and Robert Plant’s the microphone.

Bill Graham’s was the telephone.

Graham would curse, cajole and complain to get his way with the acts playing his venues, and in the recently unearthed 1972 documentary “Fillmore,” he’s in high dudgeon.

Sure, there’s plenty of good music in this chronicle of the last week of shows at Graham’s first big hall, the Fillmore West in San Francisco (his Fillmore East in New York closed around the same time, but wasn’t filmed).

But more memorable than Hot Tuna performing “Uncle Sam Blues” or the Grateful Dead tearing up “Johnny B. Goode” is the sight of Graham arguing with a disgruntled musician, threatening to rip his teeth out and chasing him down a flight of stairs.

More than any other promoter, Graham put a personal stamp on the shows he booked.  He’d pair a Russian poet with the Jefferson Airplane, or put Lenny Bruce and Frank Zappa on the same bill.  Graham fed his patrons breakfast after marathon New Year’s Eve shows, or let them in early to watch Max Fleisher cartoons pre-show when the weather outside was cold.

He orchestrated perhaps the most elaborate rock concert spectacle in history, the Band’s “Last Waltz” in 1976, featuring a who’s who of the music business paired with a turkey dinner.

Graham was a driving force in the world of live music, pioneering the first large-scale stadium shows in the early 1970s, managing massive tours for the Rolling Stones, staging Live Aid and the US Festival in the early 1980s.  He died in a 1991 helicopter crash, flying home from the Concord Pavilion, one of  many venues he bought or built on his way to becoming as important to the business as the bands he presented.

“Fillmore” is really about the end of the (somewhat) innocent trade in which Graham honed his craft, and the beginning of the concert business that dominated the rest of the 20th century.  That industry, both good and bad, was in many ways the creation of Bill Graham – Holocaust survivor, would-be actor and fire-breathing impresario.

A few musical highlights from “Fillmore” – and really, there are only a few:

Santana is in prime form just months after the release of “Abraxas,” and their reading of Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” is one of the film’s high points.  Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that never quite broke out of the San Francisco scene, is also superb.

Neither, however, is a match for Graham’s telephone tantrums.  “I gotta be worried about placating everybody,” he yells into the receiver at one point. “WHAT ABOUT ME?”

Ultimately, that’s the problem with “Fillmore” – it’s mostly about Graham.

Key performances are missing from the film (some appeared on the soundtrack album) – Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tower of Power, New Riders of the Purple Sage.

Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop and the execrable Lamb are all make it into “Fillmore,” however.  Coincidentally, they were also on Graham’s short-lived record label.

So it’s not too hard to sympathize with ex-Charlatan Mike Wilhelm as he begs for a spot on the final shows.  “Look who’s playing,” he says, adding that Grootna, another band closely aligned with Graham’s label aspirations, “sounds like it’s been together two weeks.”

“F**k you and thanks for the memories,” says  Wilhelm finally, prompting the chase down the stairs and a promise form Graham to not be so nice when the cameras aren’t rolling.  One gets them impression, though, that none of it would have happened if it wasn’t being filmed.

A final complaint – reissues should add content, not subtract.  For some inexplicable reason, Boz Scaggs, who did a sublime version of “I’ll Be Long Gone” in the theatrical release, is left off of the Rhino DVD version.

Further, there’s nary a shred of extra content, just a well-written (albeit short) essay from ex-Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres.  Who knows, maybe all the outtakes were lost when a neo-Nazi burned down Graham’s headquarters in the mid-80’s.

Maybe Rhino’s hoarding everything for a 2011 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition.

Still, “Fillmore” is a documentary every music fan should see, even if it’s not as perfect as it could have been.

Fillmore Bonus Tracks

To commemorate the 38th anniversary of the closing of the Fillmore West, the Wolfgang’s Vault website recently made nearly all of the performances from the last week available for free streaming – including the previously unheard final set from Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Included are:

June 30, 1971
Boz Scaggs, Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop & Stoneground – plus an end of the night jam session featuring Bishop, Scaggs, Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, Taj Mahal and the Pointer Sisters (two years prior to recording their first album)

July 1, 1971
It’s a Beautiful Day and Lamb

July 2, 1971
Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Rowan Brothers

July 3, 1971
Hot Tuna, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Champlin (performing as Yogi Phlegm)

July 4, 1971
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Tower of Power

Wolfgang’s Vault is a Rock Treasure

win781231-02-fp.jpgConcert promoter Bill Graham was a well-known packrat. His collection of posters, tickets, t-shirts, backstage passes and other memorabilia sat in a warehouse after his death in a helicopter crash in 1991. In early 2004, entrepreneur Bill Sagan paid Clear Channel, then-owner of Bill Graham Presents, $6 million for the entire collection and began selling it online.

With five-figure prices for many items, the Wolfgang’s Vault website wasn’t a place for the casual fan – until the advent of Vault Radio. Introduced early last year, it offered free streams of songs from the Fillmore, Winterland and other Graham venues. In late 2006, the site began making many full-length shows available online.

The selection is a treasure trove of the classic rock era. The “Concert Vault,” as it’s now known, dates back to the first Graham-produced show, headlined by the pre-Grace Slick Jefferson Airplane. Early performances from Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream, are presented in soundboard quality, along with vintage performances from era stalwarts the Grateful Dead, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Wolfgang’s Vault has since added broadcasts from the King Biscuit Flower Hour, the King Biscuit-produced Silver Eagle Cross Country program and “Live from the Record Plant,” a series of radio concerts heard originally on San Francisco’s KSAN-FM.

The site currently has almost 600 shows; a small number of them can be purchased, mostly sets from B-list bands like Girlschool and Blackfoot. Apart from a 1976 Santana performance, there’s not much from the classic era. All shows, however, are unencumbered by file protection schemes, and fairly priced at $9.98 each.

The effort is not without controversy. In December, lawyers representing several performers, including the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, brought suit against Sagan, claiming that Bill Graham never intended to profit from his personal collection. Indeed, he’d discussed plans to open a museum with it.

“We have never given permission for our images and material to be used in this way,” Bob Weir said, complaining that Sagan was “stealing what is most important to us — our work, our images and our music — and is profiting from the good will of our fans.”

Wolfgang’s Vault countersued, arguing that the legal action was a ploy by the record companies to create new sources of revenue, calling it “frivolous.”

Company representatives, who did not comment for this story, claim to have artists’ interests in mind: “Based upon all the information that is available to us,” reads a statement on their site, “we believe that performers can earn between four and six times more from Wolfgang’s Vault per download than they currently receive from their record companies.”

Whatever the outcome of litigation, Wolfgang’s Vault is a must stop for serious music fans. Here are five of the best shows from their archives:

  1. The Police at Zellerbach Hall, 3/4/79 – They’d only released one album, which they played in its’ entirety this night, along with two early singles, “Fall Out” and “Landlord.” Called back for an encore, they’d run out of material, so they reprised the song they’d opened the show with, “Can’t Stand Losing You.”

  1. Pink Floyd at Oakland Coliseum, 5/9/77 – The Bay Area audience was a nice respite for the English band. Fans hung on every note and sound effect, rather than whoop during the quiet moments. Includes pristine versions of “Have a Cigar,” “Money,” and a sadly abbreviated “Us and Them” – the sound board tape ran out. Considered one of the best live Floyd shows ever.

  1. Fleetwood Mac at Capitol Theatre, 6/7/75 – One of the first live performances from the lineup that made Mac a superstar act, as they worked through soon-to-be standards like “Rhiannon” and “Landslide,” along with mid-era favorites like “Spare Me A Little” and “Hypnotized,” a Bob Welch tune sung by Welch’s replacement, Lindsay Buckingham – with a nice Stevie Nicks harmony. A rare glimpse of rock royalty back when they were still a little hungry.

  1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Berkeley Community Theatre, 3/2/73 – Opening for Blood, Sweat and Tears, soon after releasing his first album, the Boss is raw and relentless. Save for a two-song contribution to the inaugural King Biscuit show a few weeks earlier, this is Springsteen’s first full-length live recording. Standout moment: the unreleased (until “Tracks”) “Thundercrack.”

  1. Little Feat at Winterland, 2/14/76 – At the time, a relatively unknown act – ELO headlined this show – the Lowell George-led group has all the pieces in place here. A 22-minute medley, “Cold Cold Cold/Dixie Chicken/Tripe Face Boogie,” doesn’t waste a second; fans at the show (and on the radio) also heard “Willin’” done the way it was intended, and a bang-up version of “Fat Man In The Bathtub.” One of the most bootlegged shows of the Seventies, it’s also one of the best available for download.

Defiling Bill Graham’s Memory

billgraham.jpgWhen he was alive, Bill Graham had a framed note hanging in his office, that someone had sent him when the Fillmore West closed in 1971.

It read, “Bill Graham may be an asshole, but he gave me some of the best years of my life.”

The guy who wrote it obviously had his tongue in his cheek, but these days the concert business really is run by assholes – deluded ones at that.

Now comes word, via Lefsetz, that LiveNation bought the rights to name two venues (one in New York, the other in Philadelphia) after Graham’s brightest legacy. But calling a building “the Fillmore” won’t make it 1967 again. Hell, it won’t even make it 1997. The only comfort, I suppose, is that these two concert facilities won’t be named after a bank, a computer maker or a cosmetics company.

But tickets will still cost too much, and LiveNation won’t stop treating their customers with thinly veiled contempt, inventing charges for services that don’t exist and overcharging for those that do – like parking – and scalping, er, auctioning all the good seats.

Tickets are commodities, they say. It wasn’t that way in the world I came from, and I doubt Bill Graham would be a TicketMaster kind of actor were he alive today. The business he invented is so far in the past now that it may never come back.

I grew up believing that everybody presented live rock and roll like Bill Graham. He was a class act, even when he was wrong about something. For example, when a Who concert at the Cow Palace sold out in 1974, Graham let the San Jose Box Office sell marked-up tickets. I wrote him to complain that this was scalping, a deplorable (and in those quaint, pre-EBay days, illegal) practice.

He wrote me back with a thoughtful defense of why he allowed it. It was 33 years ago, but his position then could serve as a mission statement for StubHub today. Making these tickets available legally lessens the chance that people will be sold bogus tickets, he said. He believed he was protecting fans. I didn’t agree – I still don’t- but I always admired him for taking the time to write me and say so, when he could easily have blown me off.

These days outfits like LiveNation rip off fans because they can, and could care less what anyone thinks. It’s business, they say.

Graham was different. Here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry that I can verify is true:

For all his competitive nature and fiery disposition, Graham was recognized as an expert promoter who genuinely cared about both the artists and the attendees at his concerts. He was the first to ensure that medical personnel were on site for large shows and was both a contributor and supporter of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which he often used as medical support at events. He also loved putting together groups onstage from different ethnic backgrounds—many of whom were ignored by other promoters—and he had an eye for pleasing his audience, while making an effort to educate them in styles of music they would otherwise not have been exposed to.

When I was 14, I saw Howlin’ Wolf open for Alice Cooper at the Berkeley Community Theater; it was my first exposure to the real roots of American music. I ‘d paid to see a heavy metal show that ended in a hanging. Later the same year, blues guitar master Albert King was the middle act for a T.Rex concert; the Doobie Brothers opened that show.

I had many more such revelations in the 20 or so years I attended Bill Graham Presents concerts. In these times of packaged tours that almost never happens.

Every night at Winterland, or the Cow Palace, or later Shoreline Amphitheater, provided an opportunity for discovery. I’ve lost count of the albums in my collection made by performers who were opening or middle acts at BGP events. Loggins and Messina, Lynyrd Skynyrd, STEVIE WONDER (at the 1972 Rolling Stones show) were all on the bill below the headliner at Winterland shows.

Even when there wasn’t music on the stage, Bill Graham took care of the fans. One time, I waited in line all day for a Winterland show (Steve Miller and ZZ Top, I believe); it was bitter cold, so Graham opened the doors two hours early to allow fans to warm up inside, where we watched videos of past concerts and Betty Boop cartoons. Graham could definitely be a hard ass, but we’d cut him some slack when that happened. Besides, he usually had a good reason.

Such decency is a quaint memory. Bill Graham is dead, and the concert business is whored out to a disgusting mutation of Tony Soprano, Arthur D. Little and a cyborg. The only pure music environment these days is a dank, dusty club.

Concerts haven’t been fun since Bill’s helicopter crashed in 1991. But if he knew the Fillmore name was being sold out to LiveNation, I bet he’d kick some ass.

I miss you, Bill.