Since that February night in 1966 there have been thousands and thousands of rock concerts, all over the world, and it would be impossible even to list them all, much less talk about each of them. A list of categories or a ranking would try even the most patient of readers, so I am adopting a different approach to telling the history of rock concerts as they actually happened. Each post will be about a different rock concert, a different moment in time, and I will let the cumulative effect of all the shows piece together the history of rock concerts since 1966. The story will never be finished, but that's what makes it a worthwhile tale. Over time, as readers participate, hopefully readers with their own tales to tell, the story will grow richer and broader.
November 6, 1969
Led Zeppelin/Roland Kirk/Isaac Hayes/Wolf Gang
Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, CA
When people write about how rock concerts "aren't what they used to be," they often cite this November 6-8 weekend in San Francisco, when Led Zeppelin headlined a 5400-capacity arena over jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk and soul legend Isaac Hayes. It's true that there aren't concerts like this anymore, but there's also a pretty good case to be made that they weren't like this before, either. True, although Bill Graham had moved his operation from the Fillmore Auditorium (at 1805 Geary Ave) to the larger Fillmore West (at 1545 Market Street), he still made a point of having diverse triple bills. In this case, Led Zeppelin had become so big that the concerts were moved to Winterland (on Post and Steiner), just two blocks from the old Fillmore, and the largest of the regular rock venues in San Francisco. Since Led Zeppelin was going to pack the joint anyway, Graham booked possibly his most diverse bill ever, with high profile jazzman Roland Kirk and soul legend Isaac Hayes, some years before his memorable hit with the "Theme From Shaft." It's a stunning enough bill to think about from today's perspective, but here I intend to look at it in it's original context.
Winterland, Post and Steiner Streets, San Francisco, CA
Winterland was an ice skating arena built in 1928. It was renamed "Winterland" in the 1940s. Winterland's big event in the post-WW2 era was regular extended runs of the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies. These events continued into the 1970s, even when the hall became Bill Graham's primary rock venue. All along, however, the arena had been used for concerts and other performances. Since it was two blocks from the Fillmore Auditorium, whenever Bill Graham had a 60s show that was too big for the 1500-capacity Fillmore, he moved it across Geary Blvd to Winterland. Some of the most legendary of Graham's Fillmore bills actually took place at Winterland. Even when Graham moved a mile away to the Fillmore West, he still took his biggest shows to Winterland, and in late 1969 Led Zeppelin was a very big deal indeed.
One very big difference between 60s rock concerts and rock concerts today was the order of the bands. At the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom, the first two modern rock venues, and many of their various progeny throughout the nation, the headliner did not only come on last. Or, put another way, the headliner played two sets, but the bands "on the poster" went on twice, going around the bill so that the opening act would follow the headliner for the fourth set of the evening. The headliner generally played the third and sixth sets of the evening. Isaac Hayes is great and all, but it must have been pretty daunting to come on after Led Zeppelin blasted the house for their first set.
Often on weekends, Graham would add a fourth band to the mix, and they would play a single opening set, giving people who had come early something to watch. Since Winterland had "festival seating," if you wanted any of the seats around the edges of the floor, or you wanted to get up close, you had to get there early. The opening act was usually a local band, but sometimes it was a new band associated with the management or record company of the headliner.Thus the normal weekend configuration for this show would have been
- Set 1-Wolf Gang
- Set 2-Isaac Hayes
- Set 3-Rahsaan Roland Kirk
- Set 4-Led Zeppelin
- Set 5-Isaac Hayes
- Set 6-Rahsaan Roland Kirk
- Set 7-Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin's first album had been released in January, 1969, and they were an instant sensation. FM radio put most of the tracks on heavy rotation before the album was even released, so when Zeppelin toured North America in January of '69 they were popular even before the album was released in some cities. Zeppelin had been booked as second on the bill, on the basis of Jimmy Page's history as guitarist for the Yardbirds, but they often dominated the proceedings, blowing away the headliners in city after city. On their first tour through San Francisco, Led Zeppelin had opened for Country Joe and The Fish for four nights (January 9-12, 1969). Although CJF played very well (a cd was released on Vanguard in 1994), Zeppelin had been the sensation, and their album was barely available in local stores.
Led Zeppelin had come back to headline the Fillmore West in April (April 24-27, 1969), but by then they were even bigger. By the time the Fall of '69, the band had released their second album, and Led Zeppelin II was even more powerful than their debut. Bill Graham booked them for thee nights in Winterland, since Winterland's 5400 capacity was more than twice that of Fillmore West. By showtime, Zeppelin could have sold out much bigger places than even Winterland, but the show had probably been booked before LZII was released, and it was hard to believe that they would top their first album, but they did. As a result, it hardly mattered who were booked with Zeppelin, since the shows would sell out anyway.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-77) was a blind multi-instrumentalist jazz musician. He was a successful sideman in the 1960s who stepped out as the decade wore on. He had amazing breath control, using a "circular breathing" technique, so he could play three saxophones at once and play a true chord, or hold notes indefinitely. Although a conventional hard bopper in some ways, he brought a variety of influences to bear in his music, and his versatility made him stand out. Some people felt that the circular breathing and other effects were just gimmicks, and his music doesn't seem as far out now as it did then. Nonetheless his jazz was accessible without being weak at the knees, and his breathing techniques allowed him to play more dramatically than other jazzers, so he was a good choice for a jazzman at a big rock show.
|The cover to Isaac Hayes' 1969 Stax album Hot Buttered Soul|
Hayes had co-written songs like "Soul Man", so all the English musicians had known all about Hayes forever, and I don't doubt that the members of Led Zeppelin were watching raptly from the side of the stage during many of his sets. I have to think that would have been particularly true the first night.
Wolf Gang was added to the bill at the last minute, a typical approach to a sold out show. I know nothing about them. I assure you, that means they were incredibly obscure.
Bonzo Dog Band
The original posters for the show featured Led Zeppelin, Roland Kirk and the Bonzo Dog Band. The Bonzo Dog Band, formed in 1966 as the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, were a band of truly lunatic English satirists. They had a legendary stage show that did not translate well to big venues, but they were one of the few truly inspired satirical rock groups, whose ideas did not grow old. Not to minimize their weirdness, but one of their showstoppers was a faux blues song called "Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?" Like most legends, the band never made a dime. Their most lasting legacy, oddly, was a brief appearance in the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour movie, performing their song "Death Cab For Cutie." Among many other things, lead singer Vivian Stanshall narrated Mike Oldield's Tubular Bells, and pianist Neil Innes was the de facto music director for Monty Python, and he also played "Ron Nasty" in The Rutles movie (All You Need Is Cash). The Bonzos canceled, however, and seem to have been replaced by Isaac Hayes.
November 6, 1969
The brilliantly curated Led Zeppelin site has a platform for collecting memories for each show. Someone who attended the November 6 show recalls--somewhat vaguely, he concedes--that Roland Kirk did not play that night. That would explain why the obscure Wolf Gang was added to the bill at the last second. I assume Kirk played the other two nights, but I don't know for sure. The attendee does recall, with some confusion, that "everyone played two sets," confusing because it's so atypical of concertgoing today. The set list for the evening seems to be
Good Times Bad Times (intro) ~ Communication Breakdown, I Can't Quit You Baby, Heartbreaker, Dazed and Confused, White Summer / Black Mountainside, What Is and What Should Never Be, Moby Dick, How Many More Times (medley incl. Boogie Chillen', Hideaway, Bottle Up 'n Go, "Lemon Song"), C'Mon Everybody, Something Else.I don't know where the set break might have been. Keep in mind that many Led Zeppelin numbers were quite extended, so do not confuse the short set list with short sets. I do feel sorry for Wolf Gang, whoever they were, having to play the fourth set of the evening, probably at about 11:00 oclock, after Led Zeppelin in their prime had just jolted Winterland's cement walls.
Led Zeppelin's star continued to rise, and very soon afterwards, the idea of seeing them in a 5400-seat venue would have only been a dream, much less with Isaac Hayes as an opener. Hayes, after a long musical career, became famous as the voice of "Chef" on the TV show South Park. Kirk died in 1977. Wolf Gang remains unknown to this day.
Anyone with additional knowledge, corrections, insights or recovered memories (real or imagined) about this show is encouraged to Comment or email me.
Led Zeppelin.com Timeline