Friday, January 15, 2016

Fillmore West, January 12, 1969: Country Joe And The Fish And Their Friends (Plus Opening Acts)

In 1994, Vanguard Records released a double-cd of Country Joe And The Fish Live At Fillmore West. The album included both sets from Sunday, January 12, 1969. Jack Casady played on both sets, and for the second set the band was joined by Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Steve Miller and Mickey Hart
Myths and legends often become myths and legends because tales of things that happened get told and retold, until the telling exceeds the reality. The Fillmore and Fillmore West and San Francisco in the 1960s have an element of that. Wonderful times, wonderful music, for certain, but many nights were just another gig at the local ballroom, however glamorous it may seem today. People would go and see a few bands play some music, dance and hang out, and it was really fun, and then they would go home. Once in a while, however, the myths and legends were not just tales--there were things happened in San Francisco in the 60s that won't be repeated in the rock and roll firmament. In the case of the Fillmore West show of January 12, 1969, however, a remarkable evening of music by Country Joe and The Fish and their friends has been largely forgotten and is rarely recalled, even though a double-live cd of their entire show was released in 1994.

The Sunday SF Chronicle "Pink Section" from January 5, 1969 had a photo of Country Joe and The Fish to highlight their upcoming weekend shows, along with Taj Mahal and Led Zeppelin
What Happened?
The original, psychedelic Country Joe And The Fish played their last stand at the Fillmore West on the weekend of January 9-12, 1969. Originally just the folk duo of Berkleyites Joe McDonald and Barry Melton, the band had expanded into an electric ensemble after the Butterfield Blues Band came to town in early 1966. By the end of '66, the band had been signed to Vanguard Records, and the first two Country Joe And The Fish albums were true San Francisco classics. To much of the world, Electric Music For The Mind And Body and Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die were just as important to San Francisco music history as Surrealistic Pillow or Anthem Of The Sun. By the end of 1968, however, Joe and Barry wanted to reconfigure the band. So while the group Country Joe And The Fish would continue on successfully for some more years, the January '69 Fillmore shows were going to be the last go-round for the original lineup that had arisen out of the Jabberwock coffee house in Berkeley.

If you're going to have a party, have a party. January 12 was a Sunday, and most musicians aren't working, so the last number of the final set of the original Country Joe And The Fish at Fillmore West was a 38-minute version of their song "Donovan's Reef," where the band was joined by their friends Steve Miller, Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Mickey Hart and Jerry Garcia. Yet no one seemed to recall it, and the event remained unknown until a 1994 cd release. How could such an event pass unnoticed? Could it be that the opening act, a new band from England with a guy who used to be in the Yardbirds, whose album hadn't even come out yet, overshadowed them?

Probably, yes. The mighty Led Zeppelin, young and strong, had only played 8 North American shows prior to arriving at Fillmore West.  Their first album was not officially released, but it was probably already available in a few stores--things worked differently then--and KSAN-fm was already playing numerous tracks from it. The buzz was on, and curious fans came to check it out, and were steamrolled by the Shape Of Things To Come. Some guys from the Dead and the Airplane jamming with that Berkeley band? Yeah, whatever.

Zeppelin's Fillmore West debut was mentioned in Rolling Stone and the like, but Country Joe and The Fish were dismissed as last year's news. Who knows how many people actually stuck around for the final Sunday night set, and the event seemed lost to history. This post will reconstruct what we can put together from what turns out to be a fair amount of information.

The exterior of the Fillmore West, at 1545 Market Street as it appeared in 1970. It was the former Carousel Ballroom, and that sign remained intact throughout it's life as the Fillmore West. Note the ad for Workingman's Dead above.
Fillmore West, 1969
Bill Graham's Fillmore West and Fillmore East were the twin pillars of the growing rock concert industry in the 60s. However, although Graham had moved from the intimate Fillmore to the Fillmore West, about a mile away, the industry was starting to get even bigger, and some of the biggest acts could play much larger places. The Fillmores still had very high profiles, however, so most bands began or ended tours at one or the other place, often beginning at one and ending at the other. Fillmore East had an early and a late show, but Fillmore West let its audiences stay for every set. Throughout 1969, Fillmore West had the now-unheard of setup where they went twice around the bill, so the headline act played both the 3rd and 6th set of the nights. This allowed suburbanites or teenagers to go home early, and night owls to come late, as well as allowing the most committed fans to stay for 6 or 7 hours of music.

The bill at Fillmore West for January 9-12, 1969 was Country Joe and The Fish/Led Zeppelin/Taj Mahal. On Thursday and Sunday night (Jan 9 and 12), CJF would have played the 3rd and 6th sets, while Led Zeppelin would have played the 2nd and 5th sets. On Friday (10) and Saturday (11), there was typically an unbilled act that opened the show, but did not repeat. This band was usually drawn from acts who had played the Tuesday "audition nights," another forgotten practice. On those nights, Zep would have played 3rd and 6th, and CJF 4th and 7th. Weekend shows at Fillmore West often ended very late, past bar-closing of 2:00am.

Friday night tended to be the big night for reviewers. Writers could watch the early sets and make a midnight deadline, which was important in the newspaper business. So killing it in the early Friday sets at Fillmore West or East could really make a band's careers. This was particularly true for tours that started at Fillmore East, as the Friday night early show was always reviewed in Billboard and other trade magazines, and it could affect bookings for the rest of the tour, if not a career. So any formal or informal coverage of Led Zeppelin's debut at Fillmore West was probably on Friday, January 10, and probably did not include the late set. And probably a good thing, since Zep members had caught the flu in LA the week before, and were apparently a little flat on Thursday night. No matter--by the weekend they were rocking the house, and mowing down everything in their path.

Led Zeppelin's immortal cover for their January 1969 debut album on Atlantic. The cover art was by former Yardbird guitarist Chris Dreja
Led Zeppelin, 1969
Led Zeppelin had formed in the Fall of 1968. Jimmy Page had led the Yardbirds for 1967 and '68, and he had played the Fillmore a number of times, so he knew all about West Coast psychedelic ballrooms. The Yardbirds had been a terrific band who were bottled up by their management and record company, and Page was determined not to repeat the mistakes. Along with veteran road manager Peter Grant, Page assembled some crack cohorts and set out to conquer the rock music world that was to come, not the one that had passed. Zeppelin would only release albums, not singles, and their albums were geared for FM airplay. Zeppelin was loud, really loud, and they could bring it in a way that would make every concert memorable. This was the new English rock world, not the old one of catchy singles and brief television appearances on Top Of The Pops.

Led Zeppelin's first album was not due until mid-January, so their tour was set to begin on the West Coast with a week at LA's Whisky-Au-Go-Go and then Fillmore West, both hip palaces good for creating buzz. However, the Jeff Beck Group canceled some American dates, so Led Zeppelin began their American tour, filling in for Beck while opening for the Vanilla Fudge in Denver (Dec 26), Seattle (Dec 27),Vancouver (Dec 28), Portland  (Dec 29) and Spokane, WA (Dec 30). After a few dates at The Whisky with local band Alice Cooper, some  Zep band members got sick and they were replaced by Buddy Miles for the balance of the Whisky dates.

The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin met only once, during this weekend. It was at a Herb Greene photo shoot--the Dead needed a promotional photo with their new organist, Tom Constanten, and Led Zeppelin had just finished their session. Herb Greene has written about the incident (via another scholar's research)
“The session was rolling along when I got a phone call. It was Rock Scully, telling me, "we got a new band member [Tom Constanten], so we need a picture right now – we're downstairs!"... I told him that I was kinda in the middle of something, but they came up anyway... Pigpen was wearing a little .22 revolver, in a holster, and he pulled it out and started firing it off into the theater seats. I guess I was almost done with the session when all this happened, because it was pretty disruptive, ha ha! Actually, it freaked Zeppelin out. They exclaimed, "these westerners and their guns!" In fact, Led Zeppelin got so distracted, that they quickly left and didn't pay me…
In retrospect, when the Dead called, I maybe thought OK, this is great, hands across the seas, we'll have a party, but that didn't happen. The Dead didn't want to hang out, they were just there to get a photograph. There was no interaction at all between them, no curiosity. Garcia didn't want to talk to Page, and I don't think Led Zeppelin even knew whom the Grateful Dead were.”
Hip record stores like Tower Records in Berkeley often had new albums before their "official" release date
The Record Industry, 1969
In those days, new albums did not have precise release dates. The supposed "date" of a release was just the time that promotion was planned. Long before FedEx, distributors would have had to have truck out their cardboard boxes weeks in advance. There was nothing preventing a hip record store from asking the local "rack jobber" if he had any copies of that new album by the so-and-sos. Accordingly, hip FM stations were also sent advance copies of new albums, in the hopes that they would play it before the promotional ads started.

The "official" release date of the first Led Zeppelin album is usually cited as January 17, 1969, but not surprisingly the biggest station in town, KSAN-fm, was already playing it. Thus listeners would come into the record store and ask for it, and distributors would let the stores have boxes. So plenty of people in SF (or any other hip town with an FM station) had the Zeppelin debut before it was "officially" released. Many people at the Fillmore West that night, even those looking to see Country Joe and The Fish, would have had some idea about how Led Zeppelin sounded, even if they didn't realize quite what they were going to see.

Taj Mahal, from Cambridge, MA but via Los Angeles, also had a new album. It was his second album on Columbia, The Natch'l Blues. Taj's first album, with Ry Cooder smoking on slide guitar, had been a sort of underground hit, even if he hadn't sold many records, so he would have gotten some airplay on FM as well. Ry wasn't touring with Taj, but it mattered little, since the great guitarist Jesse Ed Davis anchored his live band. Taj sang and played some harp and guitar, and Jesse Ed wailed over the rhythm section. Taj Mahal wasn't a big act, but he was worth getting to the show on time for.

Meanwhile, Country Joe and The Fish were an established act locally and nationally. The group had come out of the Berkeley folk underground in 1966 and "gone electric," establishing themselves as one of the classic Fillmore bands.  When Country Joe and The Fish toured nationally, they headlined over many groups that have since surpassed them in fame, not the least the Grateful Dead, with whom they had shared bills all over the country.

It didn't hurt that Country Joe And The Fish were a great live act, with great songs and a loony edge, but an R&B-inspired discipline that kept them from going off the rails. The band was a well-established headline act at both Fillmore West and East, with many fans all over the psychedelic world. They had released their third Vanguard album, Together, in August 1968. While it wasn't as big as the first two, it was still a popular record.

However, all was not well in Berkeley. The membership of the group had frayed when bassist Bruce Barthol, a dedicated pacifist, moved to England in September 1968 to avoid the draft. Replacement bassist Mark Ryan was arrested on tour soon after (for the devil weed, of course), and then got ill right before a European tour. In the short range, this had been OK, since former bassist Barthol was already in Europe and took over his old gig for the Fall 68 European tour. However, when the band returned to America, Country Joe McDonald and Barry "The Fish" Melton wanted to reconstitute the group entirely. Thus, although Country Joe and The Fish would continue on for two more years after the January 1969 Fillmore West shows, and numerous reunions, these shows were a farewell to the configuration of the Country Joe And The Fish band that made the group legends. Lacking a bass player, old buddy Jack Casady stepped in for most of the remaining dates (Mark Andes of Spirit filled in for two SoCal dates). Appropriately, a farewell party was planned. In retrospect, it should have been a legendary event, but today all that anyone recalls is that an unknown English band called Led Zeppelin blew the place out twice a night.

In January 1969, Country Joe And The Fish's current album was Together, released on Vanguard in July 1968
Party Number One, Friday or Saturday Night
The first whiff that something interesting had happened on that weekend came in the Summer of 1977. KSAN-fm had a radio special on the 10th anniversary of the Summer Of Love in 1967, called "What Was That" and at night they had three hours of concert tapes from the Fillmore and Avalon. At the time, the taper world was in its infancy--I myself did not yet have a cassette deck--and hearing tapes from the source was like time travel. All three nights of the radio special ended with a 3-hour "concert," featuring 15 or 20 minutes from different bands. All the tapes weren't from 1967, but they were close enough.

The KSAN special put 60s tapes from numerous bands into circulation. I believe it was the original source of a fragment of Grateful Dead Oct 68 Avalon tapes, although of course we have them in their entirety now (it was also the source for a mislabeled Feb 12 '67 tape, but I have written about that elsewhere). The dating of the tapes wasn't very good, however--the dj would just say "here's the Jefferson Airplane from the Fillmore in 1967," or something vague like that.

A Country Joe And The Fish tape was played on the special with little introduction. With a band vamping the blues, the tape had Bill Graham telling the crowd [I am paraphrasing here] "I just talked to the man, and he agreed to walk around the block. We can go on here, but this is now a private party. Please remain seated and we can keep going." He then introduced the band: Chicken Hirsh, Mickey Hart and Dave Getz (of Big Brother) on drums, Jack Casady on bass, and David Cohen (organ), Barry Melton (guitar) and Country Joe McDonald. The band launched into an extended version of the Country Joe And The Fish classic "Flying High."

It took me many years to figure out what this tape fragment actually was. The tape shows up on various lists under various incorrect dates. In fact, this tape was one of the final numbers of either Friday (Jan 10) or Saturday (Jan 11) night. Casady was already on stage, of course, but we didn't realize that at the time (the KSAN dj in 1977 would have had no idea either). Dave Getz was a pal of Joe and Barry, and in fact would join Country Joe and The Fish on tour starting in February. Hart was a friend of Melton's, too, so obviously they all came for the party and stayed to play.

Almost all Country Joe And The Fish fans consider the band's April 1967 debut album, Electric Music For The Mind And Body, to be a time-tested psychedelic classic. The cover photo insets were from a little-known venue called The Barn in Scotts Valley, CA, near Santa Cruz. 
Sunday Night, January 12, 1969
The final party remained a mystery until the 1994 release of the cd Country Joe And The Fish/Live! Fillmore West 1969 on Vanguard Records. There was no general awareness of the all-star San Francisco jam, much less the idea that it was professionally recorded. Yet with the rise of the archival cd market, here was a complete document of a remarkable event, previously unknown. Vanguard and CJF producer Sam Charters described the event itself in the liner notes:
When I look back in the last few months that Country Joe & The Fish were still trying to keep the band together and go on touring, I remember all the confusion and all the arguments and all the exasperation--but I also remember so many nights when they played with all their old magic and uniqueness. Since I'd been working with them for four years as their producer for Vanguard Records, I wanted to try to capture some of those last moments on tape, so with engineer Ed Friedner--who had worked with me on the album they did in New York [Together from 1968]--I stalked them for a number of nights on their last gigs. 
We did the first recordings of them live at Fillmore East, but we couldn't catch them at their best. They were headlining, a bill that opened with Procol Harum, continued with Ten Years After and then finished with Country Joe & The Fish [September 27-28, 1968]. By the time the first two bands had finished it was the middle of the night, and Joe both the audience and Joe and The Fish were too wiped out to make their music happen. 
We decided to make another try, so...we flew out to San Francisco to record what was to be their last gig together. Ed rented a moving large moving van and and set everything up outside the Fillmore [West] Auditorium on Market Street. The opening act was a new English band called Led Zeppelin, so we thought that there was a chance that the audience wouldn't be as limp for Joe and The Fish as they'd been in New York.
Since it was going to be the final night on stage together, the band decided to invite all their friends to join them and backstage there was a long party before they went out to play... 
Back stage the party went on for so long that the band and their friends finally came out to play in a blaze of excitement and a heavy accumulation of controlled substances. But on stage all of them immediately became the stars that they were, and after I'd made sure that everybody was playing and the sound in the van was working, I went out front and looked up at the stage. Here was one of the greatest line-ups of San Francisco musicians I had ever seen--and each of them was his own stage personality. Jorma was bent over his guitar, Steve was swaying up and down, Jerry was studying his strings, Joe was half-smiling Barry was striding around his stage...It was one of those moments in the 60s that would never come again--and listening to it after all these years, brings back that moment and so much of the mood of those chaotic years.
The double-cd set captures the final set in its apparent entirety, complete with pictures. The core band (Joe on guitar and harmonica, Barry on lead guitar, David Cohen on keyboards and Chicken Hirsh on drums) along with Jack Casady on bass, performs a 77-minute set of classic CJF songs. They are joined on one song ("It's So Nice") by David Getz on a second drum kit. For the finale, Mickey Hart takes over the second kit, and the band plays a 38-minute version of the song "Donovan's Reef," mixed in with jams based on "Flying High." Jorma Kaukonen, Jerry Garcia (playing a Gibson) and Steve Miller all get substantial turns on lead guitar, and Miller adds some bluesy harmonica as well.

On November 27, 1994, the original Country Joe And The Fish band (Joe, Barry, Cohen, Barthol and Chicken) were scheduled to play at the Berkeley Veterans Memorial Building at 1931 Center Street. They were also scheduled to play Fillmore the night before, to promote the newly released Vanguard cd from 1969. Due to some unknown dispute, Barry Melton made a brief solo appearance at Fillmore and did not appear in Berkeley. The balance of the group played a fine set, as did Joy Of Cooking and Lazarus (the photo is ca. 1940).
No one recalled the final night jam. The participants were--shall we say--distracted, but observers only remembered Led Zeppelin's first trip to San Francisco (although John Paul Jones recalls watching Country Joe And The Fish) Recollections are only about the the coming of the Zeppelin. An attendee recalls (from January 10)
I remember zep coming on after taj and the fish. Had heard zep records on kkzx, wanted more. Got it. They blew up the ballroom. Carousel/fillmore west was never same. Page, plant, bonham, jones were rock gods that night. Saw them 2 more times but nothing compared to that night in January 69.
Led Zeppelin had likely opened their first set with their only familiar song of the evening, a turbocharged version of the Yardbirds' "Train Kept A Rollin,'" and I assure you that the train indeed kept rolling. The last stand of Country Joe And The Fish was already history when it began, as the 1970s were underway in San Francisco by January 1969.

The jam finally came to light when Vanguard released the cd in 1994. Country Joe And The Fish were going to reform and play the Fillmore and Berkeley Veterans Hall, but some ancient dispute intervened, and Barry Melton did not perform with them. Melton actually performed solo at the Fillmore, but did not stay for the band, in order to fulfill his contract, perhaps afraid that the specter of the late Bill Graham would haunt him. In any case, the un-reunion dampened enthusiasm for the album, and it passed somewhat unnoticed. But as Sam Charters said, there was hardly anything like it. This one wasn't even legend--there's a professionally recorded tape, officially released, with great photos by Jim Marshall, and yet it passes us by hardly without recall. Sic Transit Gloria Psychedelia.

The Natch[l Blues, Taj Mahal's second album on Columbia, featuring the great Jesse Ed Davis on guitar, was released in December 1968
Setlists (As Known)
Taj Mahal
A tape circulates for Taj Mahal from Friday, January 10, 1969
Taj Mahal , Fillmore West,SF
January 10,1969

1-//Checkin' Up On My Baby
2-Easy Rider
3-Aint That Alot Of Love
4-The Cuckoo
5-Everybody Got To Change Sometime
6-Leavin' Trunk

Taj Mahal-vocals, harmonica
Jesse Ed Davis-lead and slide guitar
Gary Gilmore-bass
Chuck Blackwell-drums

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin's general setlists from the Fillmore West are known, but not precisely which songs were played in which order, so there may be some variation. There is a partial tape of one of the nights, although it is not clear which night it is (the entire story is explained here).

1st set: Train Kept a Rollin', I Can't Quit You Baby, As Long As I Have You (incl. Fresh Garbage), Dazed and Confused, How Many More Times

2nd set: White Summer / Black Mountainside, Killing Floor, You Shook Me, Pat's Delight (drum solo), Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, Communication Breakdown, For Your Love.


  1. I went to San Francisco for that 1994 reunion show at the Fillmore and was very disappointed to see the sign in the box office saying Barry Melton would not be appearing with the band. A Fillmore employee told us that Joe and the rest of the band wanted to rehearse all day to put on an excellent show, but Barry figured they could wing it and didn't show up early to practice, and a huge argument ensued. I remember saying something like "Maybe they'll make up before the show" and the guy was like "No, they're not gonna make up."
    Years later I met Barry Melton and talked to him about it. He disputed the reason for the disagreement, but didn't offer any alternative stories.

  2. From the perspective of the musicians, this night was a lot like the Tuesday night jams in the Carousel in early '68 - the tape we have of 5/21/68, for instance, features several of the same players. Many in the audience might not have seen it as unusual, either.

    Several tapes exist of Led Zeppelin's sets during this run (sets from the 10th-12th were taped), including a couple audience recordings. As you mention, many in the audience had already heard Zeppelin's first album, and the excitement of the crowd is evident.
    To compare: there is not a single circulating Dead audience recording from the winter of '69. For Zeppelin, a brand-new opening act with one album, there are multiple audience tapes just from Jan/Feb '69.

    Today it's rather mind-boggling that Led Zeppelin & Country Joe were billed on the same show - one of Bill Graham's crazier billings, though probably unintentional.

    Listening to the 'Flying High' from another night, with Bill Graham's introduction - -
    it's startling that in '69 the police in San Francisco were still hassling Fillmore patrons for dancing after 2 am. Some victories were slowly won...

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