The year was 1969. I was a 17-year-old high school graduate living and working in Connecticut. I was a babe in the woods when it came to New York City and “Live” rock concerts. My music tastes were forged listening intently to progressive rock radio station WNEW-FM 102.7.
The Fillmore East was the goal I had to experience. Bill Graham’s magic venue was constantly advertised on WNEW which made that passion stronger in my soul.
A fellow Jethro Tull fanatic scored four tickets at $5.50@ for us to see The Jeff Beck Group, Jethro Tull and The Soft White Underbelly perform at The Fillmore East on July 3rd, 1969. I was pumped. I could finally see my first “live” rock concert and it would take place at The Fillmore East! Little did I realize it would be the first of 425+ concerts in the next 46 years I would attend. This concert changed my life from radio station listener to active music participant. I have loved and nurtured the role of concert attendee ever since that day.
Since none of us drove a car, we rode the train from South Norwalk, CT to Grand Central Station. All the way down to the East Village we held a lively debate about our favorite band Jethro Tull and their first album, This Was. We loved to argue competitively which was the best song on the album. My favorite choice was “Serenade to a Cuckoo” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I fought for it vehemently as others articulated their favorites. Tull fanatics were we enjoying our obsession!
We took the IRT Lexington Avenue subway line to Astor Place. It was a cool and comfortable July evening in the East Village neighborhood. Our anticipation grew as we approached The Fillmore East venue on 2nd Avenue. The smell of pot and incense filled the air. The sidewalks were crowded with long-haired hippies like us. I was approached several times before we went inside if I had a spare ticket. I never responded and just kept walking. The famous lighted marquee above showed in black letters, July 3 Jeff Beck/Jethro Tull. We surrendered our tickets at the door which the Fillmore usher proceeded to tear in half. He gave us each a program (which I have since lost, sigh) and then he escorted us to our seats under the balcony overhang. He had long hair to the middle of his back and was wearing a Fillmore East green basketball jersey. He used his flashlight to point out our four seats in aisle M. Then he smiled and said, “Enjoy the show.” I thought what a cool job wondering how many great shows had he seen?
The theater was bustling as people milled about. The banter of the crowd was loud and lively. The stage was smaller than I thought it would be. I was fine with that as it added to the intimate nature of the celebration.
Soon the lights went down and Kip Cohen (Managing Director) announced the opening act. “Ladies and Gentleman please give a warm New York City welcome for Soft White Underbelly.” The first act Soft White Underbelly was a local Long Island band. They would evolve to later become Blue Oyster Cult. I was not familiar with this band’s music at all. I loved their raw energy and loud, thrashing guitars. I watched as Light by Pablo set the backdrop for their set with lots of uses of white and grey graphics. At one point I saw an image of the great white whale Moby Dick thrashing in the ocean behind them. I loved witnessing the use of lighting and graphics accented the artist’s music as they played. This art form fascinated me. Soft White Underbelly played a short, 30 minute set and received a nice round of applause for their effort.
We started yelling, “Jethro Tull, Jethro Tull”, repeatedly. The guys in front of us gave us a look of disapproval but we didn’t care. We heard the announcer say, “From England, Jethro Tull”. Next thing you know Ian Anderson and the Jethro Tull band took the stage. Ian was a whirling dervish that night. Silver flute in hand wearing a red checkered bath robe with long suede boots laced all the way up to his knee. He had this wild look in his eyes and he often stood on one foot as he played the flute. Off they went into the first song from This Was, “My Sunday Feeling”.
I was jumping up and down with Tull as they rocked the house. Wow, I was really getting to see my favorite band perform right in front of me. They sounded fantastic, much more dynamic than their album ever conveyed.
We quickly learned that Mick Abrahams, original Tull lead guitarist, had been replaced by Martin Barre. I was disappointed because I loved Abrahams style and wanted to see him play. Martin Barre, as the new Jethro Tull took a bit of getting used to that night. (Martin Barre became a fixture with Jethro Tull for the next four decades.)
We did not know yet that we were about to be treated to several new tracks from their “unreleased” second studio recording, Stand Up.
The lighting for Jethro Tull was a thick, dark, wooded glen. The screen changed into fantastic shades of forest green and blue. I recall the leaves turning bronze and copper which offset the trees smartly.
The song I liked the best from Stand Up was “Fat Man”. It was Ian Anderson seated singing and playing mandolin and Clive Bunker on bongos with bells on his feet staying in time. It was a departure from the songs on This Was. I found the song about being fat enchanting and fun. Ian Anderson’s wry sense of humor came across on these lyrics.
The Fillmore East concert was held on the eve of the Newport Jazz Festival on July 4th. George Wein had decided that Newport Jazz would go Rock that year. Jethro Tull and The Jeff Beck Group along with Led Zeppelin were scheduled to change jazz festival history as part of a transformative lineup in Newport, Rhode Island. Ian Anderson mentioned to the audience how he couldn’t wait to perform with Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Then Jethro Tull played my favorite song, “Serenade to a Cuckoo”. I was enthralled to get my private wish of hearing this song played live answered. Tull justified their place at Newport when they performed this jazz classic.
Their set ended too quickly for us. We yelled and screamed “Tull” as they excitedly vanished to wildly enthusiastic applause.
The Jeff Beck Group headlined The Fillmore East concert. Jeff Beck was a very skillful guitar slinger set against the light show extravaganza. The lighting effect for The Jeff Beck Group was the psychedelic bubble formed in a petri dish on an overhead projector. I was reminded of the cover of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as the bubble throbbed and mutated above the band. I was witnessing a member of the Yardbirds. How cool was that?
Rod Stewart was vocalist extraordinaire for Jeff Beck. He was the dandy with a long scarf that he threw about his neck as he strutted the stage like a peacock. He was very tall and the women were taken with him. He was the sex symbol we would later read about in the seventies. I loved his gravelly voice.
The Jeff Beck Group also featured Ron Wood (Small Faces, Rolling Stones) on bass guitar and Tony Newman on drums. They tore the roof off The Fillmore East venue that night.
After the concert we walked back to the subway stop, making a pit stop at Gramophone a record shop where I purchased Beck-Ola by The Jeff Beck Group. I wanted to become more familiar with the songs I heard them do that evening. I still own that album and play it when the mood strikes me.
Years later I ended up seeing Blue Oyster Cult right up the street from where I live, Jethro Tull six more times (not including the Ian Anderson Rubbing Elbow Tours, which is another story for another day) and Jeff Beck twice at Madison Square Garden.
The Fillmore East – 105 Second Avenue, East Village
The Fillmore East survived just four years. Rock music was moving to the arenas and stadiums. The Fillmore business model could no longer afford to pay the bands who made our music. The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation commemorated The Fillmore East on October 9, 2014 with this plaque.