Imagine a bill where California country-rockers the Byrds are the opener on a four-band bill. On October 5, 1969 at the Sam Houston Coliseum, Roger McGuinn and company twanged and pounded their way through a set that included most of their hits including "You Ain't Going Nowhere," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star" and an ear-jamming extended psychedelic fuzz-tone burn through "Eight Miles High."
They were followed by Poco, the hot new thing that came along quickly after Richie Furay's departure from the disintegrating Buffalo Springfield. Furay and Jim Messina put a bit more pre-Eagles pop in their California twang thing than the Byrds did, and the band delivered a note-perfect set. But fact of the matter was, not many of us came to see either the Byrds or Poco.
The main attractions were the two most iconic Haight-Ashbury bands of the day: the already notorious Grateful Dead and the surly, thunderous rock of Jefferson Airplane, with the original lineups of both bands. By the time the Dead hit the stage, the whole program was several hours behind schedule. Acid dropped at noon had begun to wear off, strange smells wafted through the Coliseum even as HPD stormtroopers manned every exit and stairwell. The attitude of the sold-out crowd was "Fuck you, Herman Short," the Houston police chief at the time.
A couple of Dead roadies came to the edge of the stage with large paper grocery bags and began to hurl showers of pre-rolled joints into the crowd near the front. The place suddenly became electric :would the cops do anything? Would there be trouble?
The lights went down and the Dead meandered out like it was just another day at the office. They played some of the material off Live Dead, and when they got to their rave-up closer, Bobby Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light," the crowd seemed to meld into one throbbing entity with the band. The ovation was standing and long.
The next time the Dead rolled into town, they were the headliners as Houston became one of their Southern strongholds for years. It wouldn't be long before they'd get busted at their hotel in New Orleans, which would result in one of their most widely-known tunes, "Truckin'."
But it was the terrible, revolutionary, acid-dropping Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane that drew the throng to the Coliseum that day, and they were in no hurry to take the stage. In one of the longest interludes between sets I've ever encountered at a major concert event, the time dragged on and on, and the old wrestling arena filled with smoke (of all kinds) as the tension built.
When the Airplane's iconic bassman Jack Cassidy strode out purposefully in his motorcycle boots and started that thumping bass line on "3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds," the joint came unwound. Our saviors had arrived. The cops got very, very nervous.
The Airplane powered through all their surly, revolutionary songs, and lit the place up like Las Vegas with their signature "White Rabbit," with all its drug references and deeply psychedelic musical vibe. Grace Slick snarled at the line of cops between the stage and the crowd as though she hoped a riot would break out.
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But by that time, most of the stoned-out audience had been confined to their seats and tiny spaces for well on six hours, so violence was avoided in the final standoff. I've never been to another event with that much tension, drama, and great music again.
Local folk singer Johndavid Bartlett was part of the concert's promoters, Wild West Productions, which booked numerous events in Houston during the late '60s. He was also the MC that day, but soon found himself pressed into duty. Speaking from his current home in Wimberley, Bartlett told us how the concert came to happen.
"Yeah, it was quite a day," he recalls. "The PA was delayed getting there. We had that big monitor system, but the rest got stuck for a while in Dallas. Ken Kesey [head of the Merry Pranksters and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] was there, and we turned the monitors around and I played sitting on a piano stool with Ken playing harmonica.
"Remember the drama students dressed as birds who were our 'freakout' crew?" Bartlett marvels.
Reminded of the extended delays and the stoned nature of most of the crowd, Bartlett notes, "Well, everyone seemed a little altered that day. Mickey Hart [Grateful Dead drummer] was tooling around backstage in a wheelchair, completely wrapped in tinfoil, both Mickey and the chair.
"George Gershin, Mike Dunham, Doopie Bateman, and myself were Wild West Productions," Bartlett says. "Bobby Sakowitz was the moolah. We did a lot of shows around the state for a couple years, but that was the first. We were all in our late teens and early twenties.
"You couldn't pull that off today," he asserts. "We produced the first U.S. concert for Pink Floyd supporting Dark Side of the Moon at Palmer Auditorium in Austin."
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