The Lost Recordings of the Fillmore: The Last Days, #1

Fillmore cover-WEB-2On rare occasion, the sands of time reveal the mysteries that have lain buried beneath them for decades. And so it is for my personal Holy Grail: What happened to the songs that didn’t make it onto Bill Graham’s swan song, Fillmore: The Last Days three LP set released in June 1972?

These three vinyl records are my favorite live rock recordings, ever. Why? Because I was too young to have been to the Fillmore before it closed in 1971. At that time I was a gangly 16-year-old, living in Fresno, CA., where the most psychedelic thing to do was put posters on my bedroom wall. I felt like I had missed the whole late 60s music scene. So when I obtained the Fillmore set when it was released, I got the chance to feel like I was there. No other set of live rock records do that for me.

Fillmore photo column for post-WEB2Five nights of recordings were made from June 29 through July 4, 1971. A theatrical film was released, too. I loved the movie and loved the records even more. I wanted to hear every song, by every band that was there that final week, but I couldn’t. Where are those damn songs? So now that I am blogging about vinyl, I decided to start searching.

Per the LP’s liner notes, Catero Sound is generally credited with mixing the records, so I managed to get ahold of recording engineer Fred Catero, who still lives in the S.F. Bay Area. Fred mixed Santana’s Abraxas, one of the best LPs I’ve ever heard. He was responsible for dozens of the greatest records to come out of the late 60s and 70s, including works by Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Pointer Sisters, and the stuff that came out of Bill Graham’s Fillmore label. The list goes on and on. He’s a legend, in my opinion.

Fred was kind enough to talk with me over the phone, but he had no recollection of mixing the LP! Well, it was 40+ years ago. Turns out that Catero Sound was just the name of the company that Bill Graham used for whatever he needed it to be, but it doesn’t mean Fred was the mixing engineer. The one tune Catero did mix was the opener, a song called Hello Friends, by Lamb.

Fred was very friendly and had great memories of certain events from that time, but he actually had little to do with the production of the three records. Fortunately, Fred was willing to put me in touch with Jeff Cohen, one of the producers of the records. Jeff had a lot to do with it.

But does Jeff know what happened to the rest of the songs, the ones I’m searching for? Unfortunately, no. But what he told me was eye-opening. “The whole recording was a bit of disaster,” Cohen related in a September 2013 phone interview. “We had nothing to do with the recording (process). We were handed tapes that were a nightmare. In most cases, there were only one or two songs (per artist) that we considered usable. We spent hours and hours trying to get the recordings to sound OK, sounding good.”

Fred Catero had mentioned that he thought the making of the records was not exactly planned in advance, and Cohen concurred, saying that “it was last-minute by Bill to get someone (Nigel Nobel) in to do the record. He (Nobel) rented a multi-track machine. Plugged every mic right into it, which resulted in some very bizarre recordings, including strange mixing of instruments on the same track. A track had trombone, then a high hat came crashing in.”

“We really did work our asses off on it,” Cohen continued. “The odds were against us. In most cases we got a mix we liked, we ‘d have the band come in to approve, and in most cases it went fine.”

But when it came to one of the Fillmore favorites, the approval process changed.

“We had Quicksilver (Messenger Service), we really had to work on it, the soloists were just horrible,” Cohen recalled of the two songs by the band that made the three LP set, Fresh Air and Mojo. One of Quicksilver’s guitarists, who Cohen didn’t want to name, was nonetheless rather pleased by his performance. “Let’s just say he had big smile on his face,” Cohen said. “So I told him we cut out some of the clunkers. He responded, ‘what do you mean clunkers? They weren’t mistakes!'”

I was astonished by this story by Jeff. I’d always considered Quicksilver’s two songs, Fresh Air and Mojo to be among the LP’s highlights! The power of the two songs is fully amplified by Dino Valenti’s* searing (some might say nasally) voice and the stinging, fuzz-toned guitar solos of John Cipollina that I’d always marveled at. They seemed perfect to me. I don’t know how Jeff did it, but he made me a believer in the power of Quicksilver, and the power of the music produced that final week. It’s songs like this that made me wonder what happened to the rest of the multitrack recordings made that night.

“I don’t know if the (1971) multitracks still exist or not,” Cohen said. But if the remaining songs are the disaster that Jeff recalls, perhaps it isn’t worth finding them after all. But you can hear many of the “lost” songs as downloads from Wolfgang’s Vault as mp3s, but the sound quality is sometimes flat and lifeless and sound nothing like the recordings that made it to the vinyl LPs. The Vault Fillmore:Last Days mp3s are sometimes patched together from different sources and no matter how I EQ them, sound dull. They just aren’t good enough to satisfy me. Don’t believe me? Listen to 40 seconds of the patched together FLAC download from Wolfgang’s Vault, of Cold Blood’s I Just Want To Make Love To You. Within the first few seconds of the song, note how the audio changes from one source to another, and then another…

So while my search continues, it’s also possible that the rest of the tunes aren’t worth finding anyway. Perhaps the sands of time aren’t worth digging through. But it’s been fun, and a great honor to speak with some of the people responsible for the music I love. I haven’t really gotten around to writing about the great live versions of songs by bands like It’s A Beautiful Day, Santana, or Malo in this post, so I’ll blog on this subject again in the future.

My SUPER SPECIAL THANKS: to Fred Catero and Jeff Cohen for their time and trouble.

Got three minutes?  Check out two songs that made me a believer in the power of music, Quicksilver’s Fresh Air and Mojo! It’s performances like these that spurred me to find the lost original tapes. Even if they’ve been edited like hell after the fact.

* Valenti’s last name is alternately spelled Valente or Valenti. His real name was Chet Powers, jr.