Concert 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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.