From 1965 to 1971, Bill Graham closely observed the San Francisco music scene develop from young aspiring bands playing at dances to seasoned recording and touring vets known around the world. For the closing week at Fillmore West, Graham presented a week of festivities celebrating the San Francisco bands, featuring many of the musicians that established the original Fillmore Auditorium and Graham's earliest forays into live concert production and promotion. Every night was special and featured an impressive triple bill. As the week progressed, each night became more extraordinary than the night before and by the time closing weekend rolled around, expectations were extremely high. On Friday night, July 2nd, Jerry Garcia embarked on one of the most monumental nights of his career, performing on nearly every song by all three bands on the bill, the Rowan Brothers, New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and of course the Grateful Dead, in their farewell performance to Fillmore West. By Saturday night, July 3rd, the Fillmore West ticket holders were anticipating another legendary night. Bill Graham didn't disappoint, with another triple bill that featured openers Yogi Phlegm (a scaled down version of Sons Of Champlin) followed by Hot Tuna and one of the most legendary of all the San Francisco bands closing, Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Originally formed in 1965 in San Francisco, Quicksilver Messenger Service, although not as commercially successful as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, or Big Brother & the Holding Co, are just as responsible for establishing the "San Francisco Sound." The group's first two albums are widely considered to be two of the finest examples of this sound in its purest form, especially their second album, Happy Trails, which emphasized extended arrangements and the fluid twin-guitar improvisations of guitarists John Cipollina and Gary Duncan. Much like their contemporaries, Quicksilver's root sound was based on folk and blues, but by mixing in jazz and classical elements, they created a distinctive individual sound that was both innovative and distinctively different. Unlike the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, bands that also thrived on improvisation and heavy amplification, QMS featured two highly distinctive guitar players. Duncan's unparalleled melodic sensibilities and penetrating lead style combined with Cipollina's finger picking, slide technique, and individualistic twang bar infused leads to create a clear biting sound that would literally define what it meant to be a "psychedelic jam band."
At the tail end of the 1960s, Gary Duncan was in poor health and temporarily left the group. They recorded a third album, Shady Grove, that incorporated pianist Nicky Hopkins into the mix. Despite some memorable material, this was clearly a transitional time and when Duncan returned, the group would temporarily relocate to Hawaii and overhaul their sound. By the dawn of the 1970s, singer/songwriter Dino Valenti, who had been peripherally involved since the band's inception, had become the de facto leader of the group. Valenti's leadership had an immediate impact, radically changing the sound of Quicksilver. With his nasal tenor voice that was both distinctive and expressive, Valenti was also a prolific songwriter and over the course of the group's next two albums, he would begin dominating their repertoire. Valenti was responsible for the group's radio hits "Fresh Air" and "What About Me," which headed in a more pop/folk oriented direction and would provide the group its greatest commercial success to date. Recorded during the 1970 sessions in Hawaii, these albums featured a much more laid back sound that was more generally accessible. These two albums (What About Me and Just For Love) would become the group's most commercially successful, eventually outselling all others in the group's catalogue. Growing increasingly frustrated with this new direction, John Cipollina departed soon after the two Hawaii albums, leaving the core band of Valenti, Duncan, Frieberg, and Elmore. Soldiering on, QMS began augmenting their live performances by bringing in former Butterfield Blues Band keyboard player Mark Naftalin (soon replaced by Chuck Steaks, who plays keyboards here) and a percussionist to flesh out the new sound. For fans of the charismatic Valenti, the QMS concerts of this era were increasingly satisfying, but John Cipollina's departure eliminated the possibility of QMS' trademark dual intertwining lead guitar sound.
By 1971, Valenti was in firm control of the group and was providing the majority of their material. Original members, Gary Duncan, David Frieberg (off and on) and Greg Elmore were still on board, maintaining a strong link to their past. Despite the absence of Cipollina, the group was still quite capable of riveting live performances, which now featured FM radio friendly songs as well as the trademark jamming that initially defined the band. This lengthy set, recorded on the night before closing night at Fillmore West, captures the group at this point in time. Although uneven, the recording captures QMS in relatively good form and highlights both the strengths and weaknesses that they were dealing with under Valenti's control. Fans of Valenti's unique voice and songwriting will undoubtedly love this show, while fans of the earlier Happy Trails era will find the moments of sheer intensity few and far between.
That said, QMS still has plenty of creativity and performs several of the most memorable tracks from their two Hawaiian albums as well as choice material from Happy Trails and Shady Grove. Although Gary Duncan was often ill during this era, on this historic night he rises to the occasion and his distinctive guitar playing is full of fire. On many of these songs (not just the obvious jam vehicles of "Mona" and "Who Do You Love"), Duncan's melodically sophisticated guitar playing is quite captivating, bringing a balance of old and new approaches to the groups more song oriented sound. As expected, Duncan sizzles on "Mona" and "Who Do You Love," his vocal and biting leads every bit as captivating as they were in 1968, but he is also the most compelling reason to listen to much of the newer material, such as "Mojo," "Call On Me," and "The Hat," which are all superb here. While Valenti's ballads tend toward weaker arrangements, one notable exception is "The Hat" from the 1970 Just For Love album. This is a phenomenal performance featuring an infectious groove from Duncan in the jam. Listeners will immediately recognize Duncan's chord structures as they later resurfaced on several mid-'70s hits by other artists.
Strong versions of the most popular Valenti-penned songs are here, including the set opening "Fresh Air" and the staples "Subway" and "What About Me," which were all in heavy FM radio rotation at the time of this performance. The newest material that they were just beginning to introduce to audiences often suffers in comparison. However, fans of the later QMS era will be delighted to discover a wealth of rarely performed material here, some songs destined for their next two albums and some that would never be officially released. This includes a remarkable reading of "The Truth," a Valenti-penned number that would soon be recorded for their next album and fresh live versions of "Doing Time In The USA" and "Mojo," neither of which would see the light of day until their 1972 album, Comin' Through. Many of these songs ("Dr. Feelgood," "Roadrunner," "Much To Say," and "Ain't That A Shame") would never be officially released on their studio albums and several are unique to this performance. Even on the weaker songs, Valenti often has the ability to induce a hypnotic effect and Duncan's lead guitar playing consistently provides rich colorful textures to the music.