The Grateful Dead found their way into American musical and cultural history thanks in large part to the incredible depth of live recordings captured by fans during the band’s decades-long career. There was a time back in the mid-1960s, however, when recording shows—or even the Grateful Dead in general—was almost completely unheard of. That changed on January 8th, 1966, when Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters recruited the Dead to play what was then just their second show at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The performance that night was part of Kesey’s ongoing experimental Acid Tests, and would also produce the first (of very, very many) known live recordings of the Grateful Dead as they were just in the very beginning stages of the long, strange trip.
The five-song set included a mix of covers and one original which the band was known to perform in their early years with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Jerry Garcia still trading off vocal duties. The captured audio of the show began with some bantering back and forth with Prankster Ken Babbs as the Dead worked on getting their audio gear warmed up and ready to go. Fans will either get goosebumps or get teary-eyed hearing Pigpen going back and forth with Babbs on why there’s no “e-lec-tricity on the stage”.
The actual performance began with bluesy covers of “King Be” and “I’m A Hog For You Baby”, followed by an early Dead original, “Caution: Do Not Step On Tracks”, and a nine-minute cover of Reverend Gary Davis‘ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”. The night and performance came to an end somewhat early with the Pranksters and the band announcing they were being kicked out of the venue, after which they closed the show with an a-cappella version of the “Star Spangled Banner”.
Dead bassist Phil Lesh would comment about the night’s performance in his 2006 autobiography, Searching for the Sound. “After Palo Alto, the Test was ready for the big time — the Fillmore Auditorium,” Lesh wrote about the memorable show in his book. “Much has been written about the role of the Fillmore in the then emerging countercultural groundswell, but at that moment it was simply the best possible venue for our trip: a huge (for us) audience space; a wide, low stage; and, best of all, balconies on three sides so that the light show and Prankster Central could spread out and be able to throw light on anything occurring in the hall.”
Dead guitarist and singer Bob Weir also recollected his hazy memories from that night’s show in an interview alongside fellow rocker Sammy Hagar a few years ago. Weir’s hilarious story about how he avoided an altercation with local police can be heard directly from his mouth in the video below.
Bob Weir Fillmore Acid Test Interview
[Video: Sammy Hagar]
Sadly, LSD would go on to be classified as an illegal substance in the state of California in October later that year. Fans and Deadheads can still look back at that magical era with a smile by turning on and tuning in to the archival audio below to hear the performance in full.
Grateful Dead – The Fillmore Auditorium – 1/8/1966
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
Setlist: Grateful Dead | The Fillmore Auditorium | San Francisco, CA | 1/8/1966
Set: King Be (Slim Harpo cover), I’m A Hog For You Baby (The Coasters cover), Caution: Do Not Step On Tracks > Death Don’t Have No Mercy (Reverend Gary Davis cover), Star Spangled Banner (John Stafford Smith cover)