Dead West: Looking Back at the Grateful Dead at The Fillmore

The Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West, 1971
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LMPC via Getty Images

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. The Allman Brothers Band at The Beacon Theatre. Cheap Trick at Budokan. The union of live performers and the venues in which they played holds great power. For a band like the Grateful Dead, who toured non-stop in all sorts of places, it might be hard to associate them with just one venue - but the Fillmore West is a pretty strong candidate.

Not only did the Dead play some 64 shows at Bill Graham's legendary San Francisco venue - they were, in fact, among the owners before the legendary concert impresario got involved. (It should be noted, of course, that the band were also mainstays at the Fillmore Auditorium, also in San Francisco - the site of the first of many, many audience recordings of the group in 1966.) When the Fillmore West was The Carousel Ballroom, members of the Dead were part of a collective that kept the lights on through part of 1968, alongside other notable acts as Jefferson Airplane (managed by Graham) and Big Brother & The Holding company. "[This] six-month run may well have corresponded with the height of the whole '60s Haight-Ashbury/San Francisco thing," rock historian Joel Selvin would later write.

It would be in early 1969 that the Dead and the Fillmore West would become forever associated. During the recording of ambitious studio album Aoxomoxoa, the group had accrued an unwieldy six-figure debt to record label Warner Bros., and decided to offset some of those costs by taking their 16-track recording equipment and using it to record some concerts, chronicling their live sets for the first time ever. The resultant album, Live/Dead, was a landmark recording hailed by critics from Robert Christgau ("the finest rock improvisation ever recorded") to Lenny Kaye ("where rock is likely to be in about five years").

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Dead-ologists would come to treasure Fillmore West recordings in later years. The eight sets recorded for Live/Dead were issued on a 10CD box set in 2005 (the last night makes up a new vinyl release available exclusively at indie retailers from January 2022) and archivist Dick Latvala picked a November 1969 show at the venue for inclusion in his Dick's Picks series in 2000. In 2021, a 1971 date at the Fillmore West was included with a deluxe edition of the band's second, self-titled album (known to many as Skull & Roses). And that's not even counting the myriad fan recordings, like the June 1969 gig in which Elvin Bishop subs in for Jerry Garcia on several songs- rumors persist several band members took particularly potent hits of acid that night - or an Aug. 18 set that saw the live debuts of "Truckin'," "Ripple" and "Brokedown Palace."

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The Fillmore West closed its doors for good on the Fourth of July in 1971 as Graham's promotional empire turned to even bigger arena tours. But the Dead were of course on hand to help say goodbye to the faithful fans two nights before, as chronicled in the celebrated 1972 documentary Fillmore: The Last Days. As these things often go, the music lives on far after the venues.

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