10 Great ‘Live at the Fillmore’ Albums

Share This:
Joe cocker-mad-dogs-and-englishmen

“Cocker put together a supersized traveling troupe” that was “like one big crazy rock ‘n’ roll party”

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.

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.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Mad Dogs & Englishmen

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, on March 12-13, 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.

At Fillmore East was released in July 1971, just weeks after the legendary venue closed.

Bonus: A complete Allmans concert at the Fillmore East from September 1970, several months before the live album was recorded…

If your favorites are missing (What, no Grateful Dead?! Weren’t they practically the house band?!), don’t worry—we’ve already put together a sequel!

Jeff Tamarkin

14 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. DJ
    #1 DJ 30 December, 2016, 01:00

    So great I have no words just awe and wishing I was young again and back there where I spent many a night!!

    Reply this comment
  2. Sunny Fishcakes
    #2 Sunny Fishcakes 8 January, 2017, 16:32

    I would include the Last Days of the Fillmore in this group ….not so much for the jam sessions, but for individual bands – great versions of Passion Flower, Keep Your Lamps, Casey Jones, In a Silent Way, etc….all the same, I like your choices for top 10 – Kitt

    Reply this comment
  3. Guy Smiley
    #3 Guy Smiley 13 March, 2017, 21:48

    OK, no question the Allmans top the list. Best live album ever. Of course, that complete Fillmore run has now been released as well.

    But NO Grateful Dead?? 1969’s Live/Dead has to make this list, and then there’s expanded (sadly, out of print) Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings.

    Then you have Dick’s Picks 4 from the legendary 2/13 and 2/14/70 shows. A shame both shows haven’t been released in their entirety, but what has been released is pretty damned amazing.

    While you mentioned King Curtis in the Aretha listing, his live album at Fillmore West should be on this list too.

    OK, OK… I just read the opening comments. You acknowledged the Dead. I’ll await the sequel.

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin Author 14 March, 2017, 15:08

      The sequel is coming soon. I didn’t want to put all of the good ones in the first part. By the way I was actually at one of those 2/70 shows with Duane Allman.

      Reply this comment
    • Goodwolf
      Goodwolf 9 March, 2019, 01:48

      Ten Years After Recorded Live!

      Reply this comment
  4. Martha
    #4 Martha 21 May, 2018, 17:03

    I feel blessed to have been a part of that music scene as a privileged spectator. I’m 71 and that music still rocks my soul. Had a huge box of hand bills and posters my mother donated. Found one the other day for the Yarbirds. I’m keeping it until my clock is punched locked in an envelope in my safe with my brother’s name on it.

    Reply this comment
  5. Jill
    #5 Jill 21 May, 2020, 06:02

    Not well known in the US but an amazing band nonetheless. The Move recorded a live at the Fillmore album during their one short US tour. It’s great and deserves a shoutout.

    Reply this comment
  6. phil
    #6 phil 21 May, 2020, 16:54

    Uh, first of all, where is ‘Wheels of Fire’? Oh, partly recorded at Bill’s other venue–Winterland. Or Chuck Berry’s? Just how many were recorded at THE Fillmore, not West or East? ..As for my beloved QMS, I always associated them with Graham’s worthy and soulful opponent, the Avalon run by Chet Helms/Family Dog. It should have a list, too ..

    Reply this comment
  7. Baybluesman
    #7 Baybluesman 8 January, 2022, 21:00

    Allman Brothers:
    ‘At The Fillmore East” – not only the best Fillmore recording, but perhaps the best Live album ever, and, let’s jack it up, perhaps The Best Blues/Rock Album Ever – Period.

    I would like to see a list created by BCB staff and reader contributions, of their selections, for their choices of best Live Rock by superb, but underappreciated, artists (incl. Rock and Roll, Blues Rock, Southern Rock, Hard Rock, Fusion Rock, etc.), from the Classic Rock Era.

    I’ll start it off by lobbying for Roy Buchanan’s “Live Stock” – Telecaster perfection, and virtuoso playing, from first groove to the last note.

    I’ll save my other nine, to see if other readers’ list includes them.

    Support Local Live Music, my Brothers and Sisters.

    Reply this comment
  8. LF
    #8 LF 9 January, 2022, 05:12

    Great story! I’m reading a book about Bill Graham. It’s fantastic! The stories behind the shows, and performers. Hard to believe, but very true!

    Reply this comment
  9. Sleepwalk Blue
    #9 Sleepwalk Blue 10 January, 2022, 08:45

    And don’t forget about King Curtis Live at the Fillmore West. Amazing!

    Reply this comment
  10. Rollbert
    #10 Rollbert 21 April, 2022, 08:15

    First Fillmore show for me was Bless its Pointed Head by JA. I think the Youngbloods opened. Airplane came on as soon as the King Kong clip ended. We soon reached an altitude of 30000 feet.

    Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.