Friday, July 13, 2012

February 19, 1969, Fillmore West: Grateful Dead/Golden Toad (Bob Thomas)

An early photo of The Golden Toad, circa 1968-69: (L-R) Don Brown, Rob Patterson, Lisa Phillips, Bob Thomas, Will Spires. The original source of the photo is unknown to me,
Throughout the Grateful Dead's career, they had associations  with many famous 60s artists: Mouse and Kelly, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bob Fried and Bill Walker are among the most prominent. However, the artist Bob Thomas stands out in a variety of ways, and one way he is different than other famous sixties artists was that his band, the Golden Toad, opened for the Grateful Dead on a number of occasions.  The fact the first time that the Golden Toad seem to have opened for the Dead was at the mysterious "Celestial Synapse" show at the Fillmore West turns out to be hardly surprising, given the many intersections Bob Thomas had with the Dead.

The saga of Bob Thomas (1938-1993) seems to be quite an interesting one, and I suspect large portions of it remain untold. However, I have been working on an intermittent series of posts about bands who opened for the Grateful Dead, and the largely ephemeral band The Golden Toad stand completely apart from pretty much any band that ever opened for the Dead. From that point of view, I am going to focus this post more on what is known about the Golden Toad rather than dwell too directly on Bob Thomas. I will link to some interesting tributes, and I assure you it's worth the time to read about him. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to mainly focus on The Golden Toad, and consider them in relation to the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead logo, designed by Bob Thomas in 1969, in order to make it easy for the crew to identify the band's equipment backstage at rock festivals full of similar gear
Who Was Bob Thomas?
Of course, while having said that the post would focus on Golden Toad, I nonetheless have to first sketch out why Bob Thomas stood out in the murky history of the Grateful Dead. Let's review some highlights:
  • Bob Thomas was an accomplished artist, and he is usually known to Deadheads for having created the art for the covers of Live/Dead and Bear's Choice 
  • Most memorably, Thomas created the 'Skull and Lightning Bolt' Grateful Dead logo, based on a idea of Owsley's. Owsley told the whole story. The essence of it was that the Grateful Dead were playing a lot of rock festivals in 1969, and when it came time to pack up all the equipment, it was hard to tell the Dead's amps and cases apart from other bands. This was a particular issue at rock festivals, where there might have been 10 or more bands playing each day, with a good likelihood that many were using similar gear to the Dead's. The logo made it easy for crew to identify road cases and other equipment as belonging to the Dead, without trying to read a faded stencil of the words 'Grateful Dead."
  • Back on November 21, 1967, one Robert Thomas was arrested in Orinda with the notorious Owsley Stanley and others, accused of conspiring to manufacture LSD. I assume that the arrested Bob Thomas was the very same one who founded the Golden Toad, so his connections to Owsley ran pretty deep. I believe he was relatively permanent resident at Owsley's house on Ascot Drive in Oakland in the late 1960s.
Bob Thomas playing one of his pipes, circa 1968-69. The original source of the photo is unknown to me.
The Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Marin County
One artifact of the 60s that remains with us was the institution of the 'Renaissance Fair" (usually spelled in some quaint way, like "Fayre"). I will admit right up front that I was never a fan of these things. Flagons of mead, fair maidens and jousting are alright for some people, I guess, but I can't romanticize a time where indoor plumbing and power-not-generated-by-mammals were hardly known. Nonetheless, in the Bay Area there was a robust series of Renaissance Fairs in Marin starting in the mid-1960s. While I think similar events were held in other forward-thinking places during the same period, the Marin Renaissance Pleasure Faire seems to have been particularly influential in establishing standard operating procedure for the future of such events (are there "Best Practices" for pseudo-jousting?).

Nonetheless, what made the 60s memorable was that it was a time where people looked at things differently, and tried to take something that was 'different' on its own terms. Thus the romanticization of past or foreign cultures, like Native Americans, then called 'Indians', and of course Indian religioua men (usually referred to as 'gurus'), represented a sincere if naive effort to break out of a narrow post World War 2 view of the hegemony of American culture and achievement. In that respect, the Renaissance Fairs were a genuine effort to appreciate the past for what it had to offer, even if historical accuracy was hardly absolute.

Bob Thomas was an accomplished piper, playing a variety of traditional and largely obscure pipes from Europe.  As a result, Thomas put together a small band of players who performed at the Renaissance Fairs in Marin the 1960s. They apparently played 15th to 18th century Mediteranean tunes on replicas of older instruments, including pipes and various stringed instruments. It couldn't be called authentic--it's not like there were tapes--but it represented a sincere effort to provide a whiff to fairgoers as to what European music from a few hundred years earlier might have sounded like. Thomas's 'Fair Band' varied in size and instrumentation, depending on who was available, but they were apparently the house band of the original Marin County Renaissance Pleasure Faires.

The Golden Toad
The original Golden Toad was an outgrowth of the Faire band. Originally a quartet, the group played a few local dates in mostly atypical venues. The Faire was only open at certain times, such as several weekends in the Summer, so the Golden Toad provided Thomas and his bandmates a chance to continue playing their music outside of the confines of the Faire. The earliest record I can find of a public performance by The Golden Toad outside of the Renaissance Fair was the 35th Annual Berkeley Old-Time Fiddlers Convention on June 8, 1968, in Provo Park (really the first time it was held, but its a long story). The Toad also played a few times at The Freight And Salvage, Berkeley's traditional folk club.

The Golden Toad had begun as a quartet, but they added and subtracted members as time went on. Reputedly, they were known to have performed with up to 23 members, although how often they did that remains unknown. They also had some association with Berkeley's Floating Lotus Opera, whose story (I assure you) makes the Golden Toad seem positively conventional.  Some of the better known members of the Golden Toad included fiddler Will Spires and Deborah and Ernie Fischbach. Those with too many albums will recall that the Fischbachs had recorded a legendarily obscure album in 1967 called A Cid Symphony. Most or all of the members of The Golden Toad played other kinds of music in various ensembles, so the band was inherently part time, but perhaps by virtue of being a labor of love the Golden Toad seemed to have no need to make concessions to anything resembling  conventional business practices.

The Celestial Synapse, Fillmore West, February 19, 1969
This Wednesday night event at the Fillmore West was promoted as the Frontiers Of Science Celestial Synapse. According to a Michael Lydon article in Rolling Stone (April 5, 1969), the concert was a keynote event at a five day 'Frontiers Of Science' conference at Harbinger Hot Springs. There was apparently a mostly invited audience, although perhaps some regular civilians got in as well. In any case, Lydon describes the Golden Toad and mentions Bob Thomas playing the pipes, so there is no doubt about the Golden Toad's presence. Lydon alludes to the Toad when the the founder of Frontiers Of Science is introduced: "after a stirring oboe and bagpipe introduction by the Golden Toad, [founder] Don Hamrick is introduced."

A blog post by an esteemed scholar about the very mysterious "June 19, 1968" Grateful Dead tape makes a pretty convincing case that the so-labeled tape is really the February 19, 1969 show from Fillmore West. The reviews plus the likely recording suggest a truly memorable evening, and the fact that the Golden Toad were present makes them accessories to the crime, even if they weren't the perpetrators themselves. The mysterious Celestial Synapse event has the whiff of well-to-do hippies having a private party, and paying the Grateful Dead to provide the entertainment. In that scenario, the Dead could have invited anyone they wanted to, and they seem to have chosen to invite the Golden Toad. If nothing else, the presence of Bob Thomas and his band insures that his connection to the Grateful Dead was close indeed. Thomas was quoted by Lydon: "I haven't seen anything like this in years -- it's like one of the old Ken Kesey Acid Tests," said Bob Thomas, piper of the Toad and, like the Dead, veteran of many an Acid Test, "-- only it's less hectic and confused. It's f***ing amazing."

The Golden Toad: What Did They Sound Like?
I am aware of no official or unofficial recordings of The Golden Toad. Bob Thomas has vaguely alluded to "Mediterranean Airs" from the 15th through the 18th century played on a variety of period instruments. Of course, those period instruments were probably built in the 20th century, and the tunes were received through the folk tradition. Thus The Golden Toad probably captured the flavor of European and Mediterranean folk sounds, without actually being precisely period-specific.

In effect, it appear that the Golden Toad were forerunners of what would now be called "World Music." They took traditional sounds and appropriate instruments, and mixed and matched to find a sound that was both new and accessible to Western ears. The only group doing anything comparable at the time in a public forum would have been the legendary rock group Kaleidoscope, a Southern California band featuring David Lindley, Solomon Feldthouse, Chester Crill and various others. Kaleidoscope, however, were playing world music in an electric context, very consciously part of the rock music universe of the 1960s. Kaleidoscope made four fascinating abums, and while none of them were really successful, the band captured the imagination of many contemporary musicians, most famously Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.

Golden Toad seems to have attempted to invent acoustic 'World Music,' making it into a lively enterprise for dancing, drinking and fun, not an antiseptic academic exercise. In that way, they can be seen as an acoustic parallel to Kaleidoscope, but the 'Scope at least had albums and played on the rock circuit, so their legend at least leaked out over the years. Golden Toad was a peculiar mystery, known only in the Bay Area, and then only to people who attended the Renaissance Fairs or saw them in their relatively rare performances at places like The Freight And Salvage and a few special events.

From one point of view, there is a very profound parallel between The Golden Toad and the Grateful Dead. Both of them played their own music, in defiance of any existing music industry norms. Both of them found performance channels and venues that had not existed prior to them, and in some ways they both helped invent the very platforms that they performed on. Having achieved a modicum of underground success against all odds, both the Dead and the Toad chose to head farther into uncharted territory rather than tack toward the main trade winds. When the Golden Toad had a modest buzz about them from being the house band at the Renaissance Fairs, expanding their aggregation to a 23-piece ensemble would be Exhibit A for insuring financial failure, unless exhibit A would have been spending over $100,000 recording Aoxomoxoa.

I don't think that the Golden Toad had a serious musical influence on the Grateful Dead in a musical sense. The bands were too far apart musically and rhythmically. However, I think the Golden Toad were seen by the Dead as a band who shared their musical ideals. The Golden Toad were attempting a difficult musical endeavor for no good reason except that they wanted to do it, and they did it despite the considerable odds against success. The Golden Toad made their living, such as it was, playing at the Renaissance Fairs, and they created that opportunity themselves, and in so doing implicitly created a blueprint for period music at Renaissance Fair for subsequent decades. Not the same, exactly, as headlining baseball stadiums every summer, but given how quixotic the entire Golden Toad enterprise actually was, it was an achievement on par with the Grateful Dead actually making a living as musicians.

Handbill for the November 1-2, 1969 shows at The Family Dog On The Great Highway, featuring The Grateful Dead, Danny Cox and The Golden Toad
I think that the Dead saw The Golden Toad as kindred spirits, so they helped them when they could. Their first opportunity was at The Celestial Synapse, and so they brought them along. I'm only aware of one other time that the Toad opened for the Dead was November 1-2, 1969 at the Family Dog On The Great Highway. I think that the November Dog show was practically self-promoted by the Dead, so while they would have needed an opening act who was cheap, they also would have been in a position to help their friends, so the Golden Toad seem to have gotten the call.

The Golden Toad: Legacy
The Golden Toad had no albums, and there are no tapes, and at their best received performances at Marin Renaissance Fairs, most of their listeners would have had no idea who was performing. Thus it would seem that the Golden Toad should have disappeared into the mists of time, and yet that is not the case. The Golden Toad seem to have been very influential on other musicians, so like all such bands their legacy after their demise is greater than when they existed. Certainly the Kaleidoscope, a great band if there ever was one, barely eked out an existence from 1966-70, and now they are universally acclaimed as a foundational band for World Music. The Golden Toad had no such pull with record collectors--they had no records--nor journalists and bloggers, but they did have an impact on musicians.

In 2010, a workshop was held in Northern California for people interested in worldwide music and dance. The mission statement describes it best:
The Golden Toad Music and Dance Camp is a gathering of musicians and dancers who wish to learn and share traditional music and dance styles from around the world.  The camp is based upon a firm belief in learning from our “community elders,” and those who have excelled in their specialty.  Enriched in a relaxed, family atmosphere, The Golden Toad Music and Dance Camp welcomes new students of young and old, along with skilled life-long learners in ancestral style music and dance.

“The Golden Toad” name is from a traditional music style band that originated in the 1960’s in Northern California.  There were four members at first who began sharing their music as “The Golden Toad” with the launch of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Northern California (first in China Camp State Park in San Rafael then Black Point Forest in Novato).  The Golden Toad band grew as they shared their songs with, and learned songs from other musicians who joined their group.  The band began to play other venues around Northern California, and for awhile could fill an entire stage with musicians joining them in performing Old World music.

Appropriately, various members of The Golden Toad, including Will Spires and Deborah and Ernie Fischbach, were instructors at the camp. Also on board was Solomon Feldthouse, one of the members of Kaleidoscope, a legend in his own right, and serving to bring some of the threads of 60s World Music together. The Golden Toad Music And Dance Camp is scheduled to have its own renaissance appearance in 2013, just as Furthur and other Grateful Dead progeny have continued to make music based on the principles by which they were founded.


  1. Hooray! I am an SF Bay Area resident, and a fan of all the great "hidden" history of my home. This post gives me more to ponder. Thanks!

  2. Very cool post. Way off the beaten track of Dead research!

    I suspect Bob Thomas being a "partner in crime" with Owsley helped get his band that Celestial Synapse slot.
    Michael Lydon could have described him as "veteran of many an acid bust"...

  3. I am Will Spires, a founding member of the Golden Toad. Thanks for this post and these images.

    1. I am a little worried about writing this for fear of stepping on any emotional toes by mistake, but I believe I am a birth daughter of Bob Thomas (I am adopted and thrilled with my adoptive family!) and am curious to learn more about him.

  4. For a detailed look at the history of The Golden Toad, and their critical importance to the culture of Renaissance Faires, the excellent book Well Met-Renaissance Faires and The American Counterculture, by Rachel Lee Rubin (NYU Press, 2012) is an excellent source. All of the members of The Golden Toad, including the late Bob Thomas, were interviewed and the book has a unique perspective.

    Professor Spires, quoted above, let me know about this book, and he confirms that it is an accurate source.

    1. Here's a link:

  5. Bob Thomas also played bagpipes in the studio with the Dead in late 1968...

    In Robert Hunter's April 1980 interview with the UK magazine Dark Star, he mentioned that in the circulating outtake of the Eleven from the Aoxomoxoa sessions, "That was Bob Thomas playing bagpipes. He was the one who turned me on to playing them.... I spent several years subsequently trying to learn how to do it."

  6. Rosie McGee's book mentions that when the Dead rented the warehouse at Hamilton AFB in Novato, "Bob Thomas, an artist friend of Bear's, moved into the warehouse loft, acting as the night watchman for the otherwise empty building."
    Bear also said on his site that Thomas, "an old friend of mine, had just moved from LA to the Bay area and needed a place to stay, and we needed someone to look after the warehouse, which had had a problem with break-ins."
    This would have been circa late '68/early '69.
    When Bear started up Alembic there, that's when Bob Thomas designed the original Alembic logo, along with the 'Skull & Lightning" logo for the Dead. (I haven't tried to look up exactly when its first appearance was, but apparently it started out as just a lightning logo & only later was the skull added...)

  7. I remember going to a performance of Golden Toad at the Family Dog on the Great Highway. It must have been around 1970. I was quite perplexed and amused, and still remember the experience with great fondness today, which is why I googled Golden Toad and found this blog. BTW I am an aging jazz musician/composer who now lives in Steamboat Springs, CO.

  8. I am Brian House and Bob Thomas was part of my extended family. I only met him a few times (most memorable was at the renaissance festival)since I grew up in SoCal. I gave one of my sons the family "Thomas". I now live in the Bay Area and am proud to know that Bob embraced the artistic spirit of humanity. I would love to learn more about this time.

    1. I am a little worried about writing this for fear of stepping on any emotional toes by mistake, but I believe I am a birth daughter of Bob Thomas (I am adopted and thrilled with my adoptive family!) and am curious to learn more about him.

    2. Scendan, I am Will Spires, a very old friend of your late birth father. I imagine your mother may have been Lisa Phillips. I am on Facebook and would be happy to correspond. Your father was a great man. I live in No Ca.

  9. I got to know Bob when he lived in a cottage in back of Bear and Melissa's Fox Brothers house in Berkeley, took a long and eventful road trip with him across the Sierra and Rocky Mountains, and generally quite enjoyed his company back in the day. Like his band mate Will Spires and his old friend Bear, he was brilliant and articulate. As Will knows, I also took some photos of them playing. — Don Douglas

  10. Musically & historically, shouldn't the Incredible String Band be included in the same breath/discussion as The Golden Toad & Kaleidoscope?

    1. Well, sure, but I was comparing Golden Toad to other California bands. I did leave out the Modern Folk Quartet, but they were more of a Hollywood thing.

      The ISB did open for the Dead at least once (at Stony Brook), and the Dead's former keyboard player did play a little bit on an ISB album (Tom Constanten on U), but there was no real intersection between those bands.