The Fillmore 2024
Photo: Paige Parsons / The Fillmore

San Francisco’s Fabled Fillmore Remains Ground Zero for Rock ‘n’ Roll

From Phil Lesh returning to home base to rising stars like Margo Price, the Fillmore remains the most hallowed hall in American rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a chilly Sunday in San Francisco on 17 December, but Phil Lesh & Friends are preparing to warm things up at the historic Fillmore Auditorium. The Grateful Dead first played here in December 1965, and while the trailblazing bassist turned 83 in 2023, he continues to defy Father Time as one of American rock’s most adventurous musicians. Fans have been thrilled to catch the sonic alchemist back in the relatively intimate confines of the Fillmore for the “Terrapin Clubhouse” shows on 3 November and 15 December, and tonight for Lesh’s last show of the year. 

Lesh hadn’t headlined the Fillmore since 2008, playing larger venues with Furthur from 2009 to 2013 and nearly all of his local shows from 2012 to 2021 at his now legendary Terrapin Crossroads across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael (until the club’s untimely demise.) But the fact that Lesh is still going strong as an octogenarian remains an inspiration for devoted fans who can’t get enough of the Grateful Dead’s timeless music that helped birth the psychedelic rock counterculture in the 1960s. 

The Fillmore played a significant role in the movement, serving as a laboratory of sorts, as drummer Mickey Hart said. The venue served not only as a home base for the Grateful Dead but also for the entire rock ‘n’ roll counterculture that rose to suggest a more harmonious and peaceful pathway for humanity. “The San Francisco Sound” and the hippie lifestyle were such new concepts in 1967 that CBS sent a TV news team to interview Jerry Garcia and the Dead at the house they shared at 710 Ashbury Street. “What we’re thinking about is a peaceful planet… and like think about moving the whole human race ahead a step or a few steps,” Garcia responded when queried about the goals of the “hippie movement”.  

The movement couldn’t change America as much as many had hoped, but it still impacted the pop culture landscape incalculably. Promoter Bill Graham played a significant role, befriending the Dead and pioneering the concept of a fan-friendly staff at the Fillmore. Though Graham passed away in a tragic helicopter crash in 1991, his legacy lives on, including how every Fillmore poster handed out after sold-out shows still bears the “Bill Graham Presents” imprint. Reopened in the 1980s and again in 1994 after the 1989 earthquake that necessitated structural upgrades, the Fillmore has solidified its status as American rock’s most sacred ground while remaining a milestone venue for rising stars.

Lukas Nelson commented on how special it was to be back at the Fillmore when his band Promise of the Real made their headlining debut in 2019, noting that one of the band’s first shows was at the Fillmore opening for his father Willie in 2009. “This is our favorite place to play in the whole world, I think,” younger brother Micah Nelson (aka Particle Kid) remarked earlier in the evening during his band’s set opening for Promise of the Real that night.

When Margo Price debuted at the Fillmore in February of 2023, fans could sense it was a special occasion. “I lit a candle in my dressing room before our show at the Fillmore and thought about the first time I came to this city. I was living in an RV parked on the street with no gig, dreaming about doing exactly this. Our show last Friday in San Francisco felt like one of the most significant shows of my life so far. It was magnetic and transcendent, and the crowd was truly there with us. I’ll never forget it,” Price commented on social media after an electrifying show that featured covers of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Janis Joplin‘s “Mercedes Benz”. 

The Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner alluded to the uniquely special vibes at the Fillmore in the 1960s upon being queried about how his band’s performance at the now legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival stacked up in the grand scheme of things. “Any night at the Fillmore is better,” the late, great Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer was reported to have said. 

On that note, PopMatters recently caught up with the Fillmore’s longtime booking agent, Michael Bailey, to get some inside insights on how management has helped keep Fillmore’s unique vibe intact for multiple generations of bands and music fans. Also, now a Senior Vice President with Live Nation (which has operated the Fillmore since 2007), Bailey has been booking shows at the Fillmore since 1987, when he rented out the room and sold out a Hüsker Dü show. 

Phil Lesh 2024
Photo: Paige Parsons / The Fillmore

Booking the Fillmore from the 1980s to the 2020s

Bailey was soon offered the full-time booking job and stayed on after Bill Graham Presents took over the lease in 1988. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 caused significant structural damage, shutting the Fillmore down for repairs until it was reopened at the height of the alternative rock era with the Smashing Pumpkins as headliners on 27 April 1994.

“We were casting a wide net to try to figure out who was available for the opening night, and we sent out offers to Smashing Pumpkins, among other people, including Ry Cooder, American Music Club, and Linda Perry. Everybody said yes, so we said alright, this will be one of the weirder shows, let’s do it,” Bailey explained regarding the historic evening’s eclectic lineup.

The Fillmore has long focused on booking artists that are currently trending. Thus, the venue’s history can be traced through the decades by the posters on the walls from every era since the 1960s. Then there are times when an artist’s trajectory can lead to missing the chance to play the Fillmore, only to go out of their way to make it happen later in their career. “Sometimes artists will emerge fully formed and even bypass the Fillmore,” Bailey noted, speaking to how every band has their own trajectory.

One such trending artist whose growing popularity recently led to leapfrogging the Fillmore is jamgrass phenom Billy Strings, who sold out the smaller Independent in 2019. He didn’t get to tour in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he kept building his fanbase with webcast shows. When Strings returned to the Bay Area, he played at Oakland’s Fox Theater in 2021 and the Frost Amphitheater in Palo Alto in 2022 and 2023. But Bailey says there had been some talks with Strings’ camp and suggested that a Fillmore appearance could still materialize.

“He missed a window to play the Fillmore, but we hope at some point to have him come in and play some shows,” Bailey said. “One of the great things that we’ve been able to do over the years is get artists to do underplays at the Fillmore for multiple nights. We’ve had some incredible experiences with that, and we work on this all the time…”

Notable past examples include a 20-night residency from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 1997, Phish making their only Fillmore appearance for a high-demand one-night stand in 1998, and the Smashing Pumpkins returning for a 12-night residency in 2007.

The Fillmore’s unmatchable history also makes it sacred ground to return to for pioneering artists of the 1960s like Phil Lesh and Hot Tuna. When Hot Tuna visited over the first weekend of December for the second to last stop on what was billed as their final electric tour, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen noted that the room didn’t have the fancy chandeliers and red velvet curtain in the 1960s that have now become iconic. But he said the vibe of the room was otherwise essentially the same. Bailey says the chandeliers were installed in the 1980s when a couple who had purchased the building wanted to make it a venue for big bands and ballroom dancing.

“That was not quite the flavor of the day,” Bailey noted wryly, which was how he ended up coming in to run the room. He and his staff have been doing it the right way, with a new generation of fans and musicians getting to fall in love with the classic venue. Railroad Earth’s Todd Scheaffer gave the Fillmore the highest praise during his band’s 2008 performance, calling it no less than the “greatest venue in the known universe”. 

“It’s so flattering and rewarding when musicians recognize the special thing about the room and love to play there. And it continues to amaze me when things go so well,” Bailey says. “It’s an amazing place to work, and I continue to love the stuff we’re able to do there and look forward to doing it for a lot longer.”

Bailey noted that the Fillmore staff has been an essential part of the formula that caters to both the musicians and the music fanatics that fill the dance floor. “We have a really good staff, and that’s part of it – there’s a lot of people that work in the room, that really believe the room and really feel that it’s a special place. The way that we treat the artists and the way the artists react to it, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

Phil Lesh 2024
Photo: Paige Parsons / The Fillmore

Phil Lesh & Friends – Sunday, 17 December 2023

The chilly evening inspires some fans to meet up for pre-show ramen and sake in nearby Japantown,  just around the corner from the Fillmore. Discussion turns to Lesh’s current band lineup, which he rotates regularly to maintain a fresh approach to the music.

A stalwart member in recent years and again during this Fillmore run has been son Grahame Lesh as one of two or three guitarists, also typically filling the Bob Weir role on vocals. Grahame Lesh has really grown into the role over the years, playing as a member of countless Phil & Friends barnburners while also leading his own band, Midnight North. The December lineup also includes popular local guitarist Stu Allen (who typically occupied Garcia chair #1 at Terrapin Crossroads), virtuoso jazz fusion guitar sensation Stanley Jordan, longtime Lesh compadre John Molo on drums, and keyboard wizard Adam MacDougall (Circles Around the Sun, Chris Robinson Brotherhood).

The early 1970s gem “Here Comes Sunshine” opens the show with a jazzy jam to set the tone. A smooth segue into the classic “Viola Lee Blues” turns the clock further back to the 1960s with the Dead’s original jam vehicle. Hearing Phil Lesh jamming out on this song at the Fillmore at the end of 2023 activates a timeless circuit of seminal bluesy psychedelia, as fans can look around and imagine what it might have been like to see the Dead here back in the day. A “Bird Song” set closer sparks another gloriously jazzy jam, with Jordan’s two-hand tapping technique generating melodies that truly seem to take flight over the intrepid grooving from Lesh and Molo.

A rare performance of the 1960s deep cut “Cosmic Charlie” opens the second set with a heady vibe before Jordan threatens to steal the show on a scintillating “Jack Straw” jam. Grahame Lesh belts out the chorus, and then the band takes off, with Allen soloing in a fierce Garcia style while Jordan taps out amazing anti-gravity leads that would lead to Carlos Santana describing him as a “multi-dimensional warrior” if he were present. The classic “Dark Star” feels like a perfect segway, with MacDougall’s trippy keys enhancing the psychedelic vibe, as does the Fillmore’s ever-magical disco ball. Then there’s more dazzling lead guitar interplay between Allen and Jordan as the “x-factor” is activated again.

Phil Lesh 2024
Photo: Paige Parsons / The Fillmore

Subsequent highlights include another rare deep cut with a cover of the Beatles‘ “Revolution” that gets the audience jazzed as they sing along with Allen about wanting to change the world. The band brings the set home with a majestic performance of “The Wheel”, Garcia’s timeless ode to the circle of life that provides an ever encouraging message to “try just a little bit more”.

“It’s always great to be back at the Fillmore and put some more music into these walls… I wanna thank you guys for being the energy that drives this because, without that kind of energy, we would just be playing with each other,” Lesh notes before an encore on Bob Dylan‘s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, which feels like a fitting song for Lesh’s last show of 2023. The Dylan classic taps the influential emotions of the 1960s that continue reverberating as America heads into another presidential election year, still searching for leadership that isn’t owned by the “Masters of War”. But as long as Phil Lesh and comrades continue to rock on, it feels like America still has a chance against the forces of old and evil. 

“The fervent belief we shared then, and that perseveres today, is that the energy liberated by this combination of music and ecstatic dancing is somehow making the world a better place, or at least holding the line against the depredations of entropy and ignorance, “Lesh wrote in his 2005 autobiography Searching for the Sound when he reflected on the Dead’s early Fillmore shows.

“At the beginning, we were a band playing a gig. At the end, we had become shamans helping to channel the transcendent into our mundane lives and those of our listeners. We felt, all of us – band, Pranksters, participants – privileged to be at the arrow’s point of human evolution, and from that standpoint, everything was possible,” Lesh wrote in a summary of the band’s evolution at the Acid Test performances that helped forge the scene. This was the handle that continued to appeal to so many fans of the Dead across three decades, a sentiment that has now carried on for nearly three more decades thanks to Lesh’s enduring devotion to the cause.