Music

The 10 Greatest Concerts Ever Staged At The Iconic Fillmore West


Getty Image

Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Next month, on June 14, a new venue named SVN West will open its doors at 10 South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, California. For the past several decades, the space served a rather banal purpose as a Honda car dealership, but at the end of the 1960s and into the early ’70s it was one of the hottest hubs of live music in all of America. It was known at first as the Carousel Ballroom until about 1968, when Bay Area concert impresario Bill Graham took it over and gave it a new name: The Fillmore West.

Though the building is slated for destruction and re-development in the coming years, a Bay Area company named Non Plus Ultra has stepped in in the meantime to host a variety of concerts and private events in the space before the wrecking ball comes through. “Our goal is to utilize the space while it’s there for however many years because it is a historical, cool landmark and we just hate to see it go to waste,” NPU representative Ryan Melchiano told me.

While the company mostly curates and hosts events in bigger and more prominent public spaces in San Francisco like the Palace Of Fine Arts and the US Mint, the fact that the old Fillmore West site is privately owned by a developer allows them to plan a wide variety of different gatherings, chief among them they hope, is music. “We want to bring in Erykah Badu and the Roots and do a cool show,” Melchiano said. “We want to bring in some old-timers from the ’60s and ’70s and pay homage and respect to the historical elements of the Fillmore West Theater and the Carousel Ballroom. We will be able to do stuff like that, and that is our intended goal.”

Though the Fillmore West only operated under that venerated sobriquet for about three years between 1968 to 1971, in that time, it managed to host some of the most dynamic rock, soul and funk artists in the history of modern popular music. Here collected, are the 10 greatest performances ever promoted by Bill Graham at the Fillmore West.

10. Black Sabbath — November 22, 1970

One of the most thrilling aspects of Bill Graham’s showcases at the Fillmore West is the quality of the lineups he put together. For a four-day stretch at the end of November in 1970, concertgoers were treated to a bill made up of headliners Love, with Joe Walsh’s power-trio the James Gang second on the card and a proto-metal band from Birmingham, England called Black Sabbath third. Sabbath’s landmark, second album Paranoid had only dropped a couple of months before this residency, meaning it was one of the first few times that audiences got to hear all-time classics like “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Faeries Wear Boots” and the iconic title track.

9. Elton John — November 12, 1970

Perhaps the greatest, officially-released live album in Elton John’s impressive discography is 17-11-70, a recording made at A&R studios in New York, that was broadcast over the radio airwaves. Sir Elton himself has pegged this as one of the best performances of his entire career, but just a few days earlier, the English piano savant turned in an equally impassioned showing in front of the audience at the Fillmore West. The covers of “I Want To Take You Higher” by Sly & The Family Stone and “Honky Tonk Women” by The Rolling Stones are especially inspired.

8. The Who — June 19, 1969

Throughout their peak years with drummer Keith Moon behind the kit, the Who remained one of the reliably explosive rock groups on the planet. This was especially true in 1969, when they regularly performed their spectacular rock opera Tommy in its entirety from coast-to-coast. The group’s initial foray into North America ended with this dynamic performance at the Fillmore West and they pulled out all the stops. Along with playing their most recent album in full, the band ended the show with a lengthy, psychedelic jam on one of their early hits “Magic Bus.”

7. Van Morrison — April 26, 1970

The same year that he dropped one of this all-time classic collection of music Moondance, 1970 was also when Van Morrison really found his footing as a solo performer and the leader of a band. In April, the Irish singer was given the unenviable task of opening for Joe Cocker and his 20-piece Mad Dogs & Englishmen backing group, at the Fillmore West, but he didn’t back down. Opening straight away with the title-track from his most recent recording, Morrison kept the San Francisco crowd rapt with an hour-long set filled by some of the greatest music anyone has ever written, songs like “Caravan,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “It Stoned Me,” and “Cyprus Avenue.” By the time he ended with “Into The Mystic,” the gauntlet for Cocker had been officially laid down.

6. Miles Davis — April 10, 1970

The Fillmore West was largely a palace for rock, blues and soul music, but promoter Bill Graham’s taste ran far more varied than that. In April 1970, Graham scored a huge coup when he managed to book Miles Davis to his venue, while the trumpeter was heavily into his electric period. At first, at least from Miles’ view, the crowd was a bit thrown by his music, as he mentioned in This Is All A Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History Of The Grateful Dead . “The place was packed with these real spacey, high, white people, and where we first started playing, people were walking around and talking,” he recalled. “But after a while they all got quiet and really into the music. I played a little something like [from] Sketches Of Spain and then went into the Bitches Brew shit, and that really blew them out.”

5. The Allman Brothers Band — January 31, 1971

The Allman Brothers Band were always a favorite group of Bill Graham’s and he booked them to perform in his venues on many different occasions, including the final performance at his New York location the Fillmore East in 1971. Led by slide guitar savant Duane Allman, the group burnished their reputation as one of the most exciting live bands in the country by turning their comparatively staid recorded material into leviathan-like jams of incredible musical wizardry. It’s difficult to pick a peak moment from this show. While many will no-doubt gravitate to set-ender “Whipping Post,” the way Dickey Betts and Duane’s guitars weave in and out of one another on “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” is otherworldly.

4. Aretha Franklin — March 5, 1971

Aretha Franklin is the greatest soul singer in the history of recorded music. Full-stop. In March 1971, the Detroit-native landed in San Francisco for a series of three shows at the Fillmore West, all of which were recorded for posterity and released in an official live album just two months after the fact. Backed by sax legend King Curtis and his band, Franklin lets it fly with a set of music that alternates from moment to moment and song to song with a range of emotions as complex as the human heart itself. With an eye to reaching the mostly white audience before her, and an untapped white record-buying audience ahead, Franklin presented unique takes on some of the biggest contemporary hits of the day like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love The One Your With.” The knockout moment of the night, however, is her performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which Paul Simon himself named as his all-time favorite take on his song.

3. Grateful Dead — February 14, 1968

That the Grateful Dead would end up somewhere on this list was a given. The Jerry Garcia-led group played the Fillmore West more than anyone else in its short history — over 40-separate performances in just three years — the only real question becomes which show was their best? It might be considered cheating by some, but to answer that question you have to go back to the beginning of 1968 when the Dead were one of the co-owners of the building, when it was still called the Carousel Ballroom, just before they handed the deed to the place over to Bill Graham that Summer. This was billed as the grand-opening show for the venue and the Dead brought their A-game, turning in a lengthy and explosive set of music, featuring one of the better versions of “Dark Star” in the group’s history. Divided into two sets of music, the second half of the evening found the Dead playing every song from their upcoming, second album Anthem Of The Sun in order.

2. Led Zeppelin — April 24, 1969

By the time Led Zeppelin landed at the Fillmore West in the Spring of 1969, they were already considered one of the hottest new bands in the world. Their self-titled, debut album which had dropped four months earlier was quickly climbing the charts and in that time they had graduated from opening for Country Joe And The Fish to becoming full-fledged headliners in their own right. On this night, the band pulled out all the stops, blasting the crowd with eardrum-shattering decibels of volume over a set of music that comprised almost entirely of material that no one had ever even heard before, including a lengthy jam on the Garnet Mims song “As Long As I Have You,” that mixed in snippets of “Susie Q” and “Fresh Garbage,” and a cover of “Killing Floor” that would morph into the “Lemon Song” on their next record. They also gave drummer John Bonham time to stretch his legs and arms on “Pat’s Delight,” and guitarist Jimmy Page delighted the crowd largely by his lonesome on “White Summer/Black Mountainside.” It was the kind of dynamic, star-making performance that would propel them to full-on arena-rocker status within the next year.

1. Santana — July 4, 1971

When Bill Graham decided to close the doors to the Fillmore West for the final time in 1971, he knew there was only one band worthy of accomplishing the task of headlining the final show: Santana. The group was long a pet-project of Graham’s — he got them onto the bill at Woodstock before they even had a record out — and Carlos Santana himself viewed the promoter’s various venues as sonic laboratories. “We learned to create different experiments with sounds and rhythms and songs and moods at the Fillmore West,” he once told Rock Cellar. Other folks noticed too. “After a while I realized even Jimi Hendrix was listening to us,” Santana added. “All of a sudden Jimi Hendrix has congas and timbales too.” Despite the fact that the band was embroiled in personal conflicts, they played a hot set that night, filled with tracks from their soon-to-be-No. 1 album Santana III. The fact they had to go on after Creedence Clearwater Revival combined with the overwhelming sense of finality in the air certainly helped spur them to give it their best. The show finally ended in the wee hours of the morning with a lengthy jam on the song that helped make them stars “Soul Sacrifice.” As send-offs go, it doesn’t get much more impassioned or emotional as that.

×