Legendary promoter Bill Graham rocks on with treasure-trove tribute site

By Oliver Mosier

Classical music had Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Gulf War had Wolf Blitzer, and classic rock concert promoting in the 1960s and 1970s had Wolfgang Grajonca, or as rock n’ roll remembers him, Bill Graham. Graham is most famous for presenting concerts in venues like New York’s Fillmore East and San Francisco’s Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom. Sixteen years after his death, it appears that Graham is back. Well, maybe not the man himself, but at least the songs he recorded.

Throughout his career in music, Graham made soundboard recordings of the majority of shows he promoted. After Graham’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in 1991, Bill Sagan acquired the rights to his recordings, choosing to place them on the website Wolfgang’s Vault (www.wolfgangsvault.com) in honor of Graham. Some artists challenge Sagan’s right to offer the music for free, while many contend that these shows are pieces of Americana that deserve to be heard.

In order to stream the music, one needs only to register for free on the website. This allows you to listen to the concerts and sends you e-mail alerts when additional shows become available on this constantly expanding database.

As of today, the site hosts 330 concerts from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s. Nearly every landmark artist from the 1970s appears on the site at least once. There are two shows by the Jimi Hendrix Experience from Winterland in 1968. The site has performances by the Miles Davis Quintet and The Who. Two shows from 1974 feature Bob Dylan & The Band. They are taken from the tour that spawned the double album Before The Flood. Shows like these cause Wolfgang’s Vault to be more than just a website; it’s an electronic museum of live music.

The Allman Brothers Band show at the San Francisco’s Cow Palace on New Years Eve 1973 consists of two sets spanning over 3.5 hours. At this time, the band’s virtuoso slide guitarist Duane Allman had been dead over two years. Bassist Berry Oakley was also gone, leaving Gregg Allman with the difficult tasks of maintaining a band decimated by tragedy. Lead guitarist Dicky Betts would take the reins left by Duane. The show displays what made the Allman Brothers so unique: Extended jams and unpredictable improvisation made every show unique. The band’s stellar musicianship was evident from the outset and this show is a delight.

David Bowie, Sly and the Family Stone, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Van Morrison—the list goes on, and on, and on. These are some of the best concerts to emerge from this highly influential era in popular music. Not to mention that this is not only a part of the artist’s legacy, but also that of Bill Graham’s. When The Band chose to bid farewell, they chose Winterland as the site of their Martin Scorses–filmed epic goodbye The Last Waltz. (Winterland was also the location of The Band’s first show as The Band in 1969.)

Arguably the most interesting concert from the vault comes from March 23, 1975 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. The show runs around 34 minutes and features Neil Young and Bob Dylan alongside Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm from The Band. The group is joined by longtime Young sidemen Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar and Tim Drummond on guitar. They play Young’s “Are You Ready For The Country?” from Harvest. Helm takes the lead vocals on the “The Weight” featuring Keith’s pedal steel guitar. Young gives an inspired debut performance of “Lookin’ For a Love” from Zuma, to be released later that year. The set closes with Young’s legendary “Helpless” transitioning into “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” After the chorus, it is obvious that the song is slightly different. Always the eminent poet, Dylan sings, “Knock, knock, knockin’ on the dragon’s door.” Kernels like this make Wolfgang’s Vault something worth cherishing.

While some may quibble about the legality of Sagan’s right to offer these shows for free, one thing is not up for debate: the importance of these concerts in the history of music. These concerts should be heard and need to be heard as part of anyone’s musical education. Now, I have fairly good idea what heaven’s door looks like. So, after spending some more time on Wolfgang’s Vault, maybe I’ll finally know where I can find the dragon’s door. I’ll probably keep looking, or rather, keep listening, and perhaps stumble on some treasure of equal weight.