Jim Murray - guitar, vocals
John Cipollina - guitar, vocals
Gary Duncan - guitar, vocals
David Frieberg - bass, vocals
Greg Elmore - drums
To hear the early "San Francisco Sound" in its purest state, one could do no better than listen to the original 1966 quintet lineup of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Unfortunately, that lineup was an unsigned band that didn't release an album and by the time QMS began recording their debut album, the following year, frontman Jim Murray had already departed the band. Some early demo recordings featuring Murray have surfaced on posthumous compilation albums, but hearing the band onstage during its most primal stage was to hear all the elements of the San Francisco Sound coming together. Freely mixing elements of folk, blues, pop, and rock 'n' roll and just beginning to embrace spontaneous improvisation, QMS was ahead of the curve, and along with the Dead, the Airplane, and Big Brother, forging a sound that would make San Francisco the epicenter of the psychedelic music universe during the following year.
Presented here is one of the rare examples of QMS on stage at Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium during their early primal era. Recorded on September 4, 1966, opening for the Grateful Dead (who were headlining the Fillmore for the very first time on this evening), this features the original quintet lineup featuring Jim Murray as the primary lead vocalist. Along with the intertwining dual lead guitar attack of Gary Duncan and John Cipollina, Murray would play a major role in developing the initial sound of the group. At this point, the live repertoire included only a handful of originals. The rest of their repertoire consisted of covers of contemporary folk and blues songs, heavily amplified and geared toward dancing. Because so much of QMS's repertoire from this era never made an album, there are several commercially unavailable songs included here. Two songs that would later appear on their debut album are also featured but in more embryonic form.
The recording begins with the voice of Bill Graham, who introduces the band as "the oldest collection of living American juveniles," prior to the band beginning their set with an up-tempo romp through Muddy Waters' "I Got My Mojo Working." The sound of Chicago blues would be one of the primary influences on the band at this stage and can even be heard in several of the originals later in the set. Next up is "Dino's Song," which would surface on their debut album. Written by friend and future band leader Dino Valenti, this is as catchy a pop song as the early band dared to go and indeed, upon the first album release a year or so later, would be the song to receive the most radio play.
"Hair Like Sunshine," one of the group's earliest originals surfaces next. A derivative blues, this song wouldn't last past Jim Murray's departure, but it remains a fine example of the group's early songwriting attempts. One of the more fascinating (and promising!) moments occurs next as QMS performs an embryonic version of their classic instrumental "Gold And Silver," still yet to become a prime vehicle for improvisation. Despite being relatively short and concise, Cipollina and Duncan's intertwining leads soar over the propulsive rhythm section of Frieberg and Elmore. There is no drum solo or flights into the cosmos, but it is a remarkable instrumental ripe with potential. Following this, the group plays one of the songs that they would soon contribute to the Revolution movie soundtrack, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," a song later covered by Led Zeppelin to great effect.
At this point, the band is ready to stretch out a bit, and they do just that by ripping into "Smokestack Lightning." Although not included on the second album, Happy Trails, this song remained a jamming staple of the quartet lineup. At this early stage it is one of the group's primary vehicles for extended improvising and, clocking in at over 10 minutes, is this set's best example of the dual lead guitar attack of Cipollina and Duncan. An interesting cover of Mose Allison's "If You Live, Your Time Will Come" turns up next, with the group establishing a more relaxed groove.
Two additional songs were included on the same reel of tape, also attributed to the September 4, 1966 date, but are seemingly from an unidentified performance several weeks later. Rather than delete these two songs from the programming, they are included here as bonus tracks. The first, "All Night Worker," is another up-tempo blues based number geared toward dancing and gives listeners another rare Jim Murray fronted number soon to be dropped from the repertoire. The recording ends much like it began, with another homage to Muddy Waters, this time in the form of "Hoochie Coochie Man."
This set helps to capture a turning point in contemporary music, as well as the beginning of a cultural shift. The band was beginning to embrace spontaneity and experimentation and can be heard here taking the early steps in that direction. To help put this set in context, the first QMS album was still over a year away, and the album that launched the San Francisco Sound into the national consciousness (Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow) yet to be recorded. This set is a fine example of Quicksilver Messenger Service still in the early stages of development, just as they were beginning to create a distinctive sound of their own.