Liquid gold

Psychedelic ’60s light-show trailblazers keep a trippy tradition alive

Credit: emi ito

[Editor’s note: This story features additional reporting by Jezy J. Gray]

As rock ’n’ roll got restless during the countercultural turn of the 1960s, the music began to cry out for a visual counterpart to its increasingly psychedelic style. Enter Bob Fine, a Texas-born Air Force veteran who came of age in the era’s hippy headquarters of San Francisco. 

That’s where the trailblazing artist and current Boulder resident got into liquid-light projection, an abstract form of illuminated visual art made by layering and manipulating colored mineral oils and dyes over a projector lens, with creative partner Bill Ham. The pair soon began putting on mind-bending light shows in their garage with local musicians. 

“It was an interconnected thing — not just accompanying some rock band,” Fine says. “[We] painted with light, with projectors, doing these spontaneous improvised compositions … the sound guy related to the visual thing, and we related to the sound.”

Most of Fine’s classic work was done in the Bay Area, where he and Ham started Light Sound Dimension, an audio-visual multimedia outfit that launched its own theater for weekly performances in 1968. The team collaborated with musicians who electrified audiences while Fine and Ham improvised in real-time from a rear projection screen. The co-founders also worked backstage, and ran an art gallery in the front of the theater where they hosted performances. 

In that context, it’s not hard to see how the dawning of psych-rock and drug culture in San Francisco — a marriage soundtracked by acts like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and more — fit the work of Fine and Ham like a glove. They began collaborating with soon-to-be-legendary rock bands at fabled, long-gone San Francisco venues like the Avalon Ballroom and the Carousel Ballroom, and live music was never quite the same.

“If you think about rock concerts … like the old Beatles black-and-white [footage], there was no light show,” says Dave Kennedy, founder and executive director of the Roots Music Project, which will honor Fine — alongside contemporary liquid-light artist Lance Gordon of Mad Alchemy — during the venue’s Dead and Company after-party series on July 1 and 2. “And then the Bay Area scene came along: liquid-light shows, acid tests, The Grateful Dead and the warehouses. All of a sudden, the whole rock light-show scene exploded.” 

But before the art form spearheaded by Fine and Ham captured the attention of the world, the vibe at Light Sound Dimension was decidedly local. “Just the neighborhood people would come, and friends, and people from the Zen Center, and the monks,” Fine says. 

Before too long, though, the pair found themselves working with 20 by 100-feet screens as they continued pushing boundaries through their trailblazing liquid-light shows. But as things grew, so did the complications of working with artists. Fine says frequent collaborations with groups like The Grateful Dead were fun, but ended in disappointment and conflicts surrounding payment. 

“Egos got in the way, and we stopped doing it,” Fine says. “Right when we were taking off, it fell apart.”

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead 11/8/18 – The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA – Photo © Dave Vann 2018

Tripping the light fantastic

Following in the footsteps of what Fine says “fell apart,” Lance Gordon of Mad Alchemy — who grew up in the East Bay, across from Light Sound Dimension’s San Francisco headquarters — started his own psychedelic light show operation in high school after seeing his first show at the famed Fillmore West in 1969.

“I was just transfixed. I mean, the experience of walking into the original Fillmore, you know, honestly, there’s really nothing quite like it,” says Gordon, who will light up the weekend of Dead and Company festivities hosted by Roots Music Project, where he and Fine will be honored following the band’s first two of three “final” performances at Boulder’s Folsom Field on the first weekend of July. “That really inspired me to do what I call a 21st-century liquid light show, to create an immersive environment, because that’s the way it felt.”

During that first Fillmore show in San Francisco, Gordon somehow found his way onto the scaffolding where the light show was being conducted. He saw the liquids in action and was “hooked,” fascinated by the chemical combinations that felt like a secret world. He quickly got the basic chemistry down and it was full-steam ahead.

But labels moved on from light-show collaborations by the mid-70’s, and Gordon ended up working with exciting but fringe artists like Roky Erikson. Despite the medium’s waning presence over the decades, acts like The Allman Brothers, and eventually the emerging rave scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, helped keep the liquid-light dream alive.

“I ended up doing live shows for almost every band imaginable,” Gordon says of the art form’s nostalgia-spurred comeback. “And the one thing I realized is the venues hated analog equipment, but the audiences loved … to see someone doing it live.” 

That resurgence led Mad Alchemy to yet another iconic stage: Colorado’s own Red Rocks Amphitheatre, now a regular venue for Gordon, who “figured out a way [that] an analog show could live in a modern stage environment.” Carrying on the tradition started by Fine and Ham, his company has since worked with everyone from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard to The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead. 

Now Gordon heads to Boulder, alongside the innovator Fine who helped change rock shows forever, where the pair will be presented with the Legends of the Liquid Light Show Award for their respective contributions to the medium, ahead of a performance by Joslyn and The Sweet Compression on July 1. According to Matt Cottle, director of operations at the Roots Music Project, the reason for the honor is simple: “They’re keeping an art form alive.”

ON THE BILL: Dead and Company after-party series featuring Joslyn and The Sweet Compression and Dave McMurray. 11:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 1 and 2, Roots Music Project, 4747 Pearl Suite V3A, Boulder. Tickets here.