When concert promoter Bill Graham first began presenting bands at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1965, he unwittingly ushered in a new era in the presentation of live rock music. Prior to the Fillmore, most rock shows took place in rooms with horrible acoustics—high school gyms, armories and the like—made worse by the use of substandard sound equipment.
At the Fillmore, the audio quality was substantially improved, psychedelic light shows enhanced the experience and both audiences and performers quickly came to embrace the venue. For a late ’60s rock band, a booking at the Fillmore meant you were on your way. Still, many fans didn’t even always know or care who was playing on a given night—they went to the Fillmore to go to the Fillmore!
In 1968, Graham moved his San Francisco operation to a new site, dubbing it Fillmore West, and also opened Fillmore East in New York’s East Village (a seated venue, unlike the San Francisco Fillmores). Their stature as the go-to rock halls only grew, and by the time Graham closed the two venues in 1971, many artists had chosen to record live albums at the various Fillmores, confident that that they played some of their best gigs in those spaces.
In all, we know of nearly 200 “live at the Fillmore” albums, many released while the venues were still in operation and others, drawn from tapes recorded by the bands or Graham’s people, in more recent years.
Here are our picks of the 10 most iconic Fillmore albums recorded and released during (or soon after) the original era. If your favorites are missing (What, no Grateful Dead?! Weren’t they practically the house band?!), don’t worry—we’ve already started putting together a sequel!
10) Humble Pie—Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore (A&M, 1971)
The Fillmores had always hosted the British heavies, from the Who to the Kinks to Black Sabbath, and Humble Pie was a late arrival, appearing second-billed to organist Lee Michaels at Fillmore East in May of ’71. They must have been a hard act to follow because Performance is one killer set of adrenalized blues-infused jams, led by the twin guitars and vocals of Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton (who left the band before the album’s release). The highlight: a side-long cover of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” (An expanded four-CD edition of the album was released by Omnivore in 2013.)
9) Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper—The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (Columbia, 1969)
Guitarist Mike Bloomfield had left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Keyboardist and singer Al Kooper had left Blood, Sweat and Tears. Kindred spirits, they cut half of the studio album Super Session together (Kooper and Stephen Stills did the other half) and, in September 1968, booked three nights at the Fillmore West. There were problems in putting the shows together, and some of the music doesn’t quite get to where you hope it will. But the rest is pretty darn spectacular, a textbook example of what the Fillmores were all about. Bonus points: guest appearance by a still unknown Carlos Santana.
8) Quicksilver Messenger Service—Happy Trails (Capitol, 1969)
Many who were on the scene at the time will testify that Quicksilver Messenger Service was the most incendiary live band in San Francisco in the late ’60s. Happy Trails makes a good case for that sentiment. There are also studio tracks on the LP, but those that are live were culled from 1968 shows at both the New York and San Fran Fillmores. The entire first side of the LP was given over to a mega-psychedelic exploration of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” infused with experimental solos. Side two’s got more live Diddley: a raucous take on “Mona.” It’s still a stunner of an album today.
7) Jefferson Airplane—Bless Its Pointed Little Head (RCA Victor, 1969)
Like Happy Trails, Jefferson Airplane’s Bless Its Pointed Little Head came from 1968 shows at both Fillmores. And like that that one, it proved definitively that this was one of the most electrifying rock groups of its time. The vocalists—Grace Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner (who played rhythm guitar)—were spellbinding both individually and in harmony. The instrumentalists—guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (who also sang), bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden—were virtuosic, influential trendsetters. BIPLH confirmed that, as great as their studio albums were, the Airplane needed to be heard live.
6) Miles Davis—At Fillmore (Columbia, 1970)
As much as Bill Graham loved soul, blues and Latin music, he was also a huge jazz fan and often booked leading jazz performers at his venues. Miles Davis was, by 1970, well-established as a chameleonic visionary but what in the world must Laura Nyro’s audience have thought when he opened for the singer-songwriter on four consecutive nights at Fillmore East in June of that year? Miles was diving headfirst into what would become jazz-rock or fusion, and this band—including young gods-to-be like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette—blew many a mind. The expansive improvisations on this double-LP are blueprints for where jazz was headed over the next decade.
5) The Mothers—Fillmore East—June 1971 (Bizarre/Reprise, 1971)
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were favorites at the Fillmores from the first time they performed at the original venue, in 1966. Five years later, in New York, the personnel had changed completely but Zappa’s outrageousness and brilliance were undiminished. The biggest change in the lineup was the inclusion of three former members of the pop-rock group the Turtles, who were perfectly positioned to carry out Zappa’s comedic, high-concept, ideas. What didn’t make this album was the encore—an unannounced guest appearance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (it’s on their own Some Time in New York City album)—but this classic managed to make a splash even without them.
4) Joe Cocker—Mad Dogs & Englishmen (A&M, 1970)
They just don’t make rock tours like this anymore. In 1970, now a huge star after his head-turning appearance at Woodstock, the dynamic English singer Joe Cocker put together a supersized traveling troupe (many borrowed from Delaney and Bonnie’s own), featuring Leon Russell as the musical director (at times, just about stealing the show), plus a full-blown choir, horn section and no less than three drummers and three percussionists. If it sounds like one big crazy rock ’n’ roll party, that’s because it was! A deluxe edition was released in 2005.
3) Aretha Franklin—Live at Fillmore West (Atlantic, 1971)
What a love-fest it must have been! The Queen of Soul, at the peak of her fame and the height of her vocal powers, settling into the home of the hippies to show ’em how it’s done. Booked for three nights in March 1971, Aretha, playing her own piano and backed by the R&B saxophone great King Curtis and his band (who released their own terrific Fillmore album from these shows), plus Billy Preston and others, opened with “Respect,” did her thing with tunes like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Eleanor Rigby,” and then, as if that wasn’t enough, welcomed Ray Charles to sing with her! Numbingly great.
Here’s raw black & white footage of Aretha singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”…
2) Jimi Hendrix—Band of Gypsys (Capitol, 1970)
Hendrix was going through major changes. He’d left the Experience behind and formed a new trio, with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. He wanted to bring the new funk and R&B sounds of the day into his heavy rock and where better to try it out than Fillmore East? On New Year’s Eve and Day 1969-70, Hendrix introduced his new music to New York in four shows and, a couple of months later, with the release of this single-disc live album taken from the January 1 shows, the world. It would be the last album of new material released during his lifetime.
1) Allman Brothers Band—At Fillmore East (Capricorn, 1971)
Rock and roll perfection on a double-LP. The Southerners were barely known outside of their home turf when they’d opened for the Grateful Dead at the New York space just over a year earlier. Now here they were, in March 1971, the hottest new band in America. What they did that weekend was not only to establish their own name but to cut what many consider one of the greatest live albums in rock history. Stretching out on jams like “Whipping Post,” “You Don’t Love Me” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and strutting their stuff on standard-length tunes like “Statesboro Blues” and “Hot ’Lanta,” guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, keyboardist and vocalist Gregg Allman, bassist Berry Oakley and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson made rock history that weekend.
Bonus: A complete Allmans concert at the Fillmore East from September 1970, several months before the live album was recorded…
Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.