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Held in the Garden Auditorium of the Pacific National Exhibition grounds from July 29-31, 1966, the Trips Festival was a multimedia event spearheaded by artist Sam Perry, a pioneer of psychedelic light shows — which may explain why the event was promoted as a multimedia sensorium of music, film, slides, and moving liquid utilizing over fifty projectors and 25,000 square feet of screen.
Performers included Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Daily Flash, and poet Michael McClure.
Perry was interested in the ability of such a psychedelic gig to transform consciousness. The addition of light and film projections all throbbing to the music was an attempt to alter the traditional relationship between audience and entertainer, shifting the focus away from the individual performances to the collective production of new realities.
This was also part of the reasoning behind the Acid Tests held in ‘65 and ‘66 around California, and especially at the Trips Festival at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco, in January of 1966. Or at least that’s what the line being pushed was. But at the time LSD was still legal and people were just turning onto it, consequently the Acid Tests, I’ve always thought, were more a celebration of the acid state of mind, than an attempt to create it without the drug. And besides, Owsley was at the tests, handing out free blotter acid anyway. So everyone was tripping out of their minds regardless.
This Vancouver Acid Test is notable because it was the Grateful Dead’s first appearance outside the U.S. At this point, they were totally unknown and their debut album wouldn’t be released for another seven months.
It was a three-day event and a very ambitious one at that. Too ambitious perhaps. “It bombed financially,” said Jerry Kruz, the promoter behind Vancouver’s first psychedelic club, The Afterthought who also got the Dead to play at the club for $500 while they were north of the border.
They were a new band at this point, having only just become the Grateful Dead in December of ‘65 after previously being The Warlocks, and they were still evolving their sound. Jeff Tamarkin, writing in the legendary hippie Relix magazine
"The Grateful Dead were still so raw and unformed in the summer of '66 – part garage/punk, part tough blues band, a bit of folk-rock and experimental zeal all filtered through a Prankster-informed lysergic mischievousness – but the elements are all in place. And they're quite often on fire here... but hints of the tenderness they would later cultivate in their original ballads also turn up.... They're still primarily a cover band at this stage – their own tunes are not even close to what they'd soon start turning out when Robert Hunter became involved – but there's no denying the inherent originality and enormity of what they've got going on."
Of course, the three-day event - The Dead played on all three days - attracted the attention of the cops who by all accounts turned up, took a look at what was going down, and decided to just let it be. There was no trouble and no laws appeared to be being broken given that altering your consciousness with lysergic acid was as legal as taking aspirin at the time.
As well as being the band’s first gig outside of the U.S. Vancouver is also significant in their history for being where the first free Grateful Dead performance in a public park actually took place in Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, August 5, 1966.
The Trips Festival kicked off psychedelia in earnest in Vancouver. Vancouver, British Columbia, was a free thinking seaport with balmy weather, which had a very interesting music and arts scene in the 1960s.
One of the peculiar characteristics of Canadian hippiedom, however, was that it had very little political strife attached to it and the scene is reported as being more about music and the arts, with considerably less of the "Us vs Them" confrontation between straights and squares that characterized America in the 60s.
Hence, when the Dead simply pulled up to a stage in Vancouver's largest public park, set up quickly and began to play without any sort of permission, the police came along and shut it down, there was no harassment or hostility. There were no billy clubs or breaking of heads the way we’d see so often south of the border in the coming months and years.
Having been shut down once, the Dead of course simply followed directions to another bandstand and pulled the stunt again, until the cops came once more, and then did it again at a location called again at Kits Beach. All good clean fun.
It all sounds like a very groovy early counterculture scene.