Hidden away in Virginia City, a place knownfor mining, ghost stories and Mark Twain, sits one of the most influential landmarks of the psychedelic era in the 1960s: the Red Dog Saloon.
When it opened in June of 1965, the Red Dog Saloon became the provenance of much of what and who we know of the San Francisco sound, the counterculture musical phenomenon that dominated the decade.
Mike Wilhelm, a founding member and guitarist for Bay Area band The Charlatans, told a story from the Red Dog Saloon in 1965.
“The first show we played, the sheriff had shown up,” he said. “So, as was the custom in the Old West, he walked up to the bartender and said, ’Check my gun?’ The bartender grabbed it, spun the barrel and fired two shots in the floor, and said ’Works fine, sheriff.’ And that was the way it was back then.’”
Loren and Sue Pursel, the current owners, have reestablished the Red Dog Saloon as a musical hub.
“If you’re just up here for the ghosts, I don’t think I’ve got enough ghost stories for you,” said Loren Pursel. “But we’re a different reason for people to come up to Virginia City. We bring in this music and people respond to it.”
Though many who hit the Red Dog stage today are folk artists, singer-songwriters or Americana groups, that isn’t to say that the Red Dog Saloon forgot its psychedelic roots.
While major players like Jefferson Airplane and a pre-Janis Joplin Big Brother and the Holding Company supposedly made their rounds at the Red Dog Saloon, The Charlatans were the most important to the establishment’s history.
The Charlatans, which consisted of Mike Wilhelm, Dan Hicks, George Hunter, Richard Olsen and the late Mike Ferguson, emerged in 1964 in San Francisco with a sound that identified more with jug band and blues music than that of their contemporaries.
A year later, the Charlatans, sporting Western vests, string ties and firearms, arrived in Virginia City as the house band for the Red Dog Saloon.
Their residency at the saloon was an intersection between San Francisco psychedelic musicians, prototypical light shows and LSD in a neo-Western setting. It sparked what was known as the Red Dog Experience.
“When we first started playing this music, people thought we were a cult,” said Wilhelm. “But we couldn’t be a cult. We didn’t have a leader. It got better when they realized we were just playing music, spreading peace, love and all that.”
While the Charlatans never gained the success of their contemporaries—like Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead—they left an impression on the San Francisco scene, from the anachronistic fashion sense and drawn-out chord progressions, even to dropping acid before a show.
Now, the four living Charlatans, along with Tom Constanten of the Grateful Dead, will return to the Red Dog Saloon for an anniversary celebration weekend, along with artists like the Scragg Family and Freddie Krc. It will end with a concert to commemorate The Charlatan’s opening night at the bar on June 21—50 years ago to the day. The members have announced that it will be their final performance together.
It seems a fitting place for The Charlatans’ final bows.
As for the Saloon, the Pursels hope the anniversary brings about the nostalgia of the Red Dog Experience—just without the LSD. Probably.