Put the Boot In: Flying Burrito Brothers Live at Altamont Speedway 1969
Recently appearing in varying corners of the intraweb, and in general circulation for those who seek it is a crystalline soundboard recording of the “Flying Burrito Brothers” live at the infamous 1969 Altamont festival. A day that will be remembered not because of the music, but because of the death of young Meredith Hunter who was murdered at the hand of a group of Hell’s Angels. In addition to his tragic murder, there were three deaths on the day and a general malaise in the air.
Rightfully overshadowed by the day’s horrible nonmusical events, there was indeed some good music presented on the stage.
Documented in the “Rolling Stones” film “Gimmie Shelter”, the left coast Woodstock had a pall bad vibes from the very beginning. Poor planning, bad decisions regarding security and general disorganization doomed the gathering from the start. Confirmed for the festival was a plethora of left coast area artists willing to contribute their time and talents to the concert. The scheduled line up for the event (in order of appearance) included “Santana”, “Jefferson Airplane”, “The Flying Burrito Brothers”, “Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young”, “The Grateful Dead” and the “Rolling Stones” as the headliners. Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969 was picked for the accommodations. 300,000 folks showed up and chaos insured. In the end, the Grateful Dead ended up not playing, and Marty Balin of the Airplane ended up getting punched in the face.
Keith Richards had become close friends with Gram Parsons, as the duo had bonded over their shared love of country music and getting fucked up. It was Richards doing, that the Burrito’s had secured a slot in the festival’s line up. In segmented footage from the Burrito’s set, Richards can be seen grooving on the festivities. The cross-pollinating influence between the two was deep, with Parson’s even imitating Mick Jagger’s dress and mannerisms at Altamont with a pretty blouse and some ass shaking.
The Burrito’s released their debut album The Gilded Palace of Sin in December of 1968 and were working on the follow up. The first two albums together would encapsulate the pastoral return to the roots movement of the current rock scene. Because of this prolific work, several new tracks would get workouts on the Altamont stage. The band had retooled its line up since their debut as bassist Chris Ethridge had left the band. Chris Hillman moved back to his natural instrument of bass, guitarist Bernie Leadon was added on guitar. Sneaky Pete Kleinow remained on pedal steel and former “Byrd” Michael Clarke took up the drum stool. There were now three former Byrds wrapped in this hot Burrito line up.
The group asserted themselves well in such a strange venue and in front of a humongous crowd. The played for half an hour and laid down a rickety honky tonk space country aesthetic. While the group usually played smallish local venues like the Palomino Club or Avalon, the guys didn’t flinch at the massive crowd. While not known as a band that could rock the socks off of everyone, they certainly could make you think of the woman you lost, or look forward to the next stop on the highway.
The vibe was still one of anticipation and groovyness as the Burrito’s took to the small open-air stage.
After an introduction by Stones manager Sam Cutler, the group immediately entered a slippery and wide eyed throttle through “Six Days on the Road”. Powered by diesel and blowing smoke rings in the air, the metallic string scrubs of Leadon and Sneaky Pete throws sparks. The group is jittery and Parson’s sings in in an earnest warble. There is footage of this opening track in the film “Gimmie Shelter”, the vibe is light and the crowd is getting off.
The horny two step of “High Fashion Queen” from the group’s yet to be released second LP keeps the tempo high with swinging dual lead vocals by Parsons and Hillman.
“Cody, Cody” follows, another new number built on a gentle Byrds’ like sway and containing one of the finest Burrito melodies. Sweeping Sneaky Pete steel lines underpin the shared vocals by Hillman and Parsons. Mid-song the guitars meet, intertwine and increase the melodic effect of the shimmering chord changes. Parsons can be heard expressing well timed off mic asides.
The group thanks both the audience and the Stones before firing up “Lazy Days,”
a Gram Parsons number that he recorded with every single band he had ever been a member of. In 1970 the Burrito’s released the song as a single, unfortunately it was lazy in its movement up the charts.
Parsons starts the song by singing the opening line and the rhythm section falls into place quickly. Silvery, summer rain steel shifts the rhythmic currents. Both Parsons and Hillman sing like hopped up cowboys in contrast to the songs title. In some choppy audience shot footage Parsons can be seen agitating a tambourine while acting quite like the lead singer of the headlining group.
At this point of the show its obvious on the tape that the Burrito’s are showing out.
A steamy special, Buck Owens, “Close up the Honky Tonks” gets down to what GP is all about, eliciting a good time lilt and deep investment. Here in lies the uniqueness of the Burrito’s, wicked messengers of the country gospel. Heaping spoonful’s of classic country fed to the collective hippy demographic. An exuberant on stage howl, is followed with an onstage quip of, “We hope that got you off” at the end of the song.
In a “rock room” recommended highlight of the performance, Waylon Jennings “Mental Revenge” gets an aggressive slide centric reading, highlighted by Parsons and Hillman’s backcountry vocal blend. Leadon takes a short and sweet but well played solo, while Sneaky Pete threads a moonshine laced line throughout the verses. Clarke chugs along with a straight up groove…country rock indeed.
An emotive reading of the “Bee Gee’s”, “To Love Someboy” increases the performances emotional power. If you are an admirer of Gram Parson’s vocals this version will hit the bullseye. Like his later interpretation of “Love Hurts”, Parson’s jump in with both feet. His vocals, honest, yet cracked in all the right spots, the Burrito’s move the song from one side of the room to the other creating an entirely new look at a familiar space.
A hard to hold “Lucille” is a nod and a wink to the band’s rock and roll roots and gets the hippies back on their feet. Clarke’s dinging bell cymbal propels the band. Sneaky Pete, turns the thumping changes into a watery mantra with his sleek playing. Hillman and Parson’s harmonies keep the rock standard from sounding the anything rock at all.
Buck Owens “Together Again” gets a false start and then becomes a last call. A sozzled swing allows Parson’s to don his acoustic and croon out one of his favorites. Out of the solo spot Parson’s sings from the gut and pushes out a warbled emotive yelp.
The set proper then closes with Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, and the song wings around the sharp corners of Altamont Speedway, leaving only streaks of feedback and the sizzling of the amps in its wake. Leadon and Pete collaborate on lead lines that suddenly appear out of the air and meld back to the arrangement. The song threatens to outrun Parsons recitation of the verses at one point, but Gram lands on time and takes the finale to a fabulous finish.
A historic, strange day, often recognized for the negative acts that took place more than for the music created (for good reason). Now, over 50 years later audio from a forgotten “Flying Burrito Brothers” set allows for a reassessment of not only the group, but of one of the weirdest concerts in the annals of rock history.