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Quick, name your favorite indoor arena. How about a midsize theater you'd frequent weekly regardless of what bands were on the bill? Now name the best stadium or sports complex to see a concert. Having trouble? That's because concert ticket prices are too high to venture out even monthly and venues are too big and impersonal to do anything but sell you overpriced beer and shuttle you in and out like cattle. Imagine a concert promoter actually hiring a Sabrett hot dog cart and feeding the crowds between two Neil Young and Crazy Horse shows free of charge. Hell, it's hard to imagine a band even doing two shows a night anymore. But such things actually happened on a daily basis at the Fillmore East, at least for the four years recounted in this photo memoir by Amalie Rothschild.
Concert impresario Bill Graham was a guy possessed with the notion that if you give people -- even hippies -- something extra, they'll keep coming back. The Joshua Light Show was just one of those extras, and photographer Rothschild was a dedicated behind-the-scenes force in creating the trademark psychedelic effects that looked like amoebas going into labor in a puddle of motor oil. Even decidedly un-psychedelic acts like Chuck Berry got the Pepto-Bismol-coating-the-lining-of-your-stomach light treatment. It's important to note that before the Fillmore, most bands' ideas of a "visual show" extended only as far as putting a sphinx on a drum head, smashing equipment or wearing an inappropriate hat. Graham and his cronies planted the seeds for rock theater, as is evidenced by a photo of a propless Pink Floyd in 1970. When the Who performed Tommyat the Fillmore East for a week in October 1969, the troupe actually provided visuals to accompany the lyrics. Included here is a great photo of the band playing "Smash the Mirror" with the Hitchcockian effect of glass shattering across the backdrop -- something those in attendance still talk about.
Unfortunately, that original creative spirit was short-lived. Midway through the book, Graham and the Fillmore's technical crew turn their attention to outdoor festivals like Woodstock and Isle of Wight, where musicians' gross began to swell in proportion to their heads and people more interested in cash than creativity started to get into the game. Only folks like Graham seemed to understand that it was a noble duty to help rock 'n' roll rise above the mundane and turn kids into Steve Miller on to Miles Davis.
Before Graham pulled the plug on the Fillmore East in 1971, dozens of classic live albums were recorded there, including Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, the Allman Brothers' Live at Fillmore East, Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen and Elton John's 11-17-70 (there's a startling picture in the book of a young Elton with longer hair than Bernie Taupin).
In addition to the photos, a big point of interest is an index which lists every Fillmore show. If one could procure a time machine, there are some strange nights worth checking into, particularly a May 1969 concert when Led Zeppelin, Delaney and Bonnie and Woody Herman and His Orchestra shared a stage. Again, for two shows! As time machines go, Rothschild's memoir is a deadly accurate document of a place that seems a million miles removed from the concert halls of today.