San Francisco’s Fillmore West was much more than a concert venue. Thanks to its open, friendly, and relaxed vibe, it was a gathering place and incubator for the hippie movement in the mid-to-late 1960s. Of course, the wild psychedelic light shows and spectacular bills of the top artists of the day played a major role in creating that atmosphere, but by 1971, the music industry’s success had created a legion of bands and managers with an ever-growing list of demands. Fed up with these mounting constraints on his business, promoter Bill Graham decided to close the Fillmore West and its New York City sister venue, the Fillmore East. A weeklong series of farewell concerts were held at the Fillmore West, culminating in a grand finale on the 4th of July. Graham had a camera crew capture the procedings, which were released as a feature film in 1972 and have now been released on DVD 37 years later.
All of San Francisco’s musical heavy hitters are here and operating at the top of their game. About to hit their peak as a live band, the Grateful Dead deliver a fine "Casey Jones" and a scorching "Johnny B. Goode." Hot Tuna play a rollicking "Candyman," and Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady’s other band, Jefferson Airplane, are seen producing an impassioned combination of "Volunteers" and "We Can Be Together" juxtaposed with footage of the Haight-Ashbury days. Of course, venue closer Santana delivers the goods while jamming through "Incident at Neshabur" and "In a Silent Way."
While one might expect brilliance from the major headliners, it’s the second tier groups who really shine. Cold Blood pits Janis Joplin-esque vocals against some thunderous funk on "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." Quicksilver Messenger Service grinds their way through a rockin’ "Mojo," and Elvin Bishop absolutely shreds a nasty rendition of "The Sky Is Crying." Rehearsal jams are also found in this film with Jerry Garcia and New Riders of the Purple Sage having fun with a countrified riff and the Rowan Brothers creating a sweet and sunny groove while Graham and his staff are seen playing a spirited game of basketball.
Although the music is expectedly great and often displayed in a split-screen format reminiscent of Woodstock, the real star of this film is Graham himself. Extremely conscious of the camera in the room, he plays up every single confrontation with the sort of dramatic flair one might expect from a tortured thespian. Indeed, we learn a little about the promoter’s failed quest to become a professional actor, the litany of jobs he worked before finding his niche, and his manic childhood as a Jewish orphan fleeing the Nazis throughout Europe and Africa before settling into a hardscrabble life in the Bronx. But underneath his battle-hardened exterior, we see a man who truly cares. His relationships with his employees are unrivaled, his admiration for Garcia is more than evident, and his pride in helping to foster the good vibes of the San Francisco scene is omnipresent. In a telling moment that shows just how fast the times were changing, a wistful Graham speaks longingly for the Flower Power era of 1967, a mere four years prior to this interview. It is hard to fathom how quickly society was reinventing itself at that time, but it is even harder to fathom the revolution that swept through San Francisco in the 1960s taking place without Bill Graham. He treated the audience with respect and made sure everyone had a good time, concepts that were relatively unheard of when he first began promoting concerts. While The Closing of Fillmore West may have originally been intended as a tribute to the legendary venue, it actually becomes more of a tribute to the tough-as-nails impresario who ran it, a man who offended and irked many but ultimately brought unrivaled joy to the lives of thousands (and eventually millions) of concertgoers.
- Last Days of the Fillmore
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