Friday, January 3, 2014

# 17 Droppin in at the Fillmore

     In the mid sixties, the ambitious young businessman Bill Graham begins managing a small theater troupe, and promotes a few music shows in San Francisco. Then he moves on to promoting some free concerts in the Bay area, which are also successful. He has a natural business acumen, and starts a promotion company which will become, Bill Graham Presents. One of the first rock concerts he organizes is with another local promoter by the name of Chet Helms. 

    The two decide to put on a concert featuring The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The band's performance is so lucrative that Graham's ambition takes over, and he decides to cut Helms out the next concert with the Butterfield Band. So, he stays up all night in a plan to call Butterfield's manager in New York before Helms has a chance to make the a call. Graham asks Grossman for the rights to promote Butterfield for one show, but then negotiates a deal with him that will make Graham the sole promoter for every show Butterfield plays in San Francisco. The whole episode says a lot about Graham, and yes, his actions do piss off Chet Helms. However, it is the start of a long, and prosperous relationship for Graham, Grossman and Paul Butterfield.

   One of the auditoriums that Graham leases for his shows is called The Fillmore. It's an old building in a ghetto neighbourhood of San Francisco called the The Fillmore District. In the coming years, Bill Graham will acquire, The Fillmore then Winterland, and Family Dog Concert Halls. In these buildings he will host most of the rock bands who create some of the most of the influential music of a generation. Bands such as: The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, BIg Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Starship, The Eagles, Country Joe and the Fish, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, Moby Grape, Santana, Frank Zappa, Steve Miller, The Mamas and the Papas, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, Taj Mahal and many more. (BTW, The Grateful Dead hold the record for playing The Fillmore, 52 times between 1965 and '69.) Through his foresight, business leadership, generosity, and talented staff, Bill Graham becomes the most important rock concert promoter of a generation.  

   The Fillmore actually becomes as famous as many of the names who play there. It also develops into both a local as well as an international focal point for psychedelic music, and an institution of the counter culture in the United States..

    One of the reasons the venue becomes famous is because of its ambiance. There are strobe lights, swirling light show projections, and my favourite, the iconic light show which appears behind so many bands of that era. (Here is how they created that effect: they take the lens' from two clocks you can find in most public institutions. The lens' are about 8 or 10 inches in diameter. They pour vegetable oil mixed with food colouring on one side, and sandwich the two lens' together. Finally, they place the sandwiched lens' on a standard overhead projector, which magnifies the designs between the lens'.)

    A lot of Bill Graham's initial success as a promoter, and The Fillmore is because of the The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They become the band to see when in San Francisco. As an example of his gratitude to Butterfield, in 1973, when Butterfield is playing Winterland with his band, Better Days, Graham introduces them with "If it weren't for Paul, I don't know if a lot of us would be tonight"  That is a pretty solid endorsement from the most important promoter of an era.

   Initially, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band are different than all of the San Francisco bands who play The Fillmore. They look different, none have long hair, and they show up on stage dressed in their street close. The other thing that sets them apart from everyone else is their obvious elevated level of musicianship. One of the reasons for this is the wide variety of music they have been exposed to growing up in Chicago. The most important skill gained from all that musical experience is the sensibility that comes from the improvising found in Be-bop, and then the more eclectic Hard- bop. I know from reading interviews with Butterfield that he is very familiar with Be-bop and Hard-bop jazz. As Charlie Parker so succinctly sums up playing the music, "Master your instrument, Master the music, and then forget all the stuff, and just play."

    In these types of Jazz, the musicians play an introduction, referred to as the head. Then, they take turns improvising inside the groove. It's an artist based music, not audience based, as is the case with pop. As slight digression, often, the media still depicts The Beatniks and Be-bop musicians as one unified social group, but in reality, it is The Beats who fall in love Be-bop artists and their music, the love is not always reciprocated. The reasons are probably as simple or complex as that The Beats feel connected to the seemly spontaneous self-expression of Be-bop, and so claim it as their music, but often, the Be-bop artists see the The Beats as lazy. 

   Anyway, the musical format used by both Be-bop and the more eclectic Hard-bop players, sounds like a simple enough format, but it requires mastery of the instrument, and then the ability to creatively put that mastery into a soundscape. While the Butterfield Band are willing to attempt the music, most of the other local bands in San Francisco are not. I don't know if I would place any of the Butterfield Band in the same skill category as the Hard-bop players, but they definitely had the sensibility, and compared with most of the other rock musicians in San Francisco, they are pretty proficient musicians. 

   So, here is the key reason why The Fillmore recording is so important. The band chooses to play Nat Adderley's 1960, Hard-bop cross over hit Work Song as part of their repertoire. They may choose the tune as a way to distance themselves from Blues or to signal a more eclectic approach to playing rock, but they make the effort, and it pays off. Keep in mind that no other rock band is attempting to fuse rock, blues and jazz together at this time. The Butterfield Band is breaking ground when they substitute saxophone and trumpet parts for electric guitars, and amplified harmonica.

    Which brings us to Droppin In with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Some of it is a bootleg recording of the band at The Fillmore. When I was given a copy, it was on audio cassette. I was both elated, and disappointed, all at the same time. It is made up of a collection of tracks from the An Offer You Can't Refuse, which is a reproduction of Sutherland Hotel collection. (See my post #2) In addition, there are a few tracks from the 1965 The Newport Folk Festival set. For these reasons I was really disappointed with Droppin' In with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

   The remaining tracks are from a set in 1966 at The Fillmore. The sound quality isn't that great, but it is certainly good enough to enjoy on a good system, or with headphones. I imagine some sound engineer at The Fillmore must have taped the show from the soundboard as it definitely sounds better than an audience recordings. 

   The good points about the Fillmore set of tracks is this: once again it is a historical document of the band when they are first making history at The Fillmore. The performances are great! For these reasons alone, I am glad own a copy.

   The band is: Paul Butterfield harmonica and vocals, Mike Bloomfield guitar, Elvin Bishop guitar, Jerome Arnold bass and Bill Davenport drums.

The September,1966 Fillmore tracks are: The Sky is Crying, Oh, Pretty Woman, Help Me, Born in Chicago, Goin' Home, Droppin' Out, Out Love is Drifitin', She's Long She's Tall, My Babe, Kansas City, Work Song and East West.

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