Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Avalon Ballroom April 22-23, 1966: The Blues Project/Great Society

This post initiates a series analyzing every rock concert at the Avalon Ballroom. Above is the Wes Wilson poster for the event (FD5--thanks to Ross for the scan).

April 22-23, 1966 The Blues Project/Great Society

Transplanted Texan Chet Helms had started informally promoting shows in the basement of an old Victorian (by then a boarding house) on 1090 Page Street. He had taken over The Family Dog name from Luria Castell and others in early 1966, and initially he went into a partnership with Bill Graham. From February through early April of 1966, Graham and Helms alternated promotions each weekend at the Fillmore. Disputes rapidly arose between the two entrepreneurs, and Helms, realizing he would never co-exist with Bill Graham, found his own venue.

Helms took over the lease on The Avalon Ballroom, opened in 1911 as The Puckett School of Dance, for 800 dollars a month.  It was on 1268 Sutter (at Van Ness), 8 blocks nearer to downtown than the Fillmore, but just as far away from North Beach or the Haight Ashbury. The Avalon was somewhat smaller than the Fillmore, and was always a looser, wilder scene, remembered fondly by everyone who went.  As the evening wore on, the Avalon staff typically joined in the dancing and carrying on, and no one took tickets.  Over time, the hippie style of management meant that bands sometimes didn’t get paid (or on occasion were just given a kilo of weed).

The Avalon and The Fillmore summed up the dichotomy of the ballroom scene.  Bands and fans preferred the Avalon, but it was ultimately too disorganized to survive.  The implicit commercialism of the Fillmore guaranteed a level of professionalism that allowed bands to persist.  Most big cities and college towns soon developed a psychedelic ballroom scene, based on what little information could be gleaned from rumors and Life Magazine. Most of these scenes were like the Avalon:  fun, economically unsound, and unable to survive.  The Fillmore took the parts of the ballroom scene that were good for the music and injected enough commercial sense to insure survival.

For its opening weekend, the Avalon booked The Blues Project, the hippest band in New York.  Blues Project played extended blues like every band in this era, but they came at it from a more musical, up tempo New York style, doing relatively jazzy versions of blues songs, or bluesy versions of folk songs. Danny Kalb, though unknown beyond Greenwich Village, was one of the best electric blues guitarists outside of Chicago, and Al Kooper’s organ was well-known for his seminal playing on Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.”  Unlike any of the San Francisco bands, guitarist Steve Katz, bassist Andy Kulberg and drummer Roy Blumenfield could play a fast blues shuffle and still swing.  Although vocalist Tommy Flanders, who appeared on their soon-to-be released album Live At The CafĂ© Au-Go-Go (Verve May 66), had already left, Kooper, Katz and Kalb were adequate vocalists.

The Blues Project, already popular in Greenwich Village and the East Coast College circuit, were making their first trip West. The Avalon wasn't their Bay Area debut--they probably played The Matrix the week of April 12-17, and definitely played the San Francisco State Folk Festival (the weekend of April 15-17)--but the Friday and Saturday night shows were the highest profile gigs for the band in the area. Chet Helms was well known in the underground, and the opening of the Avalon was a big deal, and the Blues Project's hot swinging blues put the San Francisco bands on notice about how good a band could be. After this weekend, The Blues Project were extremely popular in San Francisco for the life of the band, and the Avalon was off to a roaring start.

The Great Society came out of the Film and Art world, and had never been folkies.  They were interested in improvised music and (for lack of a better term) Performance Art.  Grace Slick and her husband Jerry had seen the Airplane perform in August 1965, and felt inspired to form a rock band. Grace played keyboards and sang, Jerry played drums, Jerry's brother Darby played lead guitar, and David Miner played guitar and sang. Their inability to find a bass player in 1965 had led them to hire one Bard Dupont, after a chance meeting in the post office, because he had long hair and hip clothes.  The Great Society's public debut was at the first Family Dog event on October 16, 1965 at Longshoreman's Hall, although they did a brief unpublicized performance at a coffee shop the night before.

Great Society’s record company, Autumn, supposedly released a single of “Someone To Love” in March, written by Darby Slick, and later to become the legendary “Somebody To Love” when performed by The Jefferson Airplane.  The 45, while actually pressed, was never apparently distributed, as a result of Autumn Records’ financial difficulties.  Also, despite Dupont’s desire to be in a band, he didn’t play an instrument and his inability to play bass was holding up the band. By the time of the Avalon debut in April, Dupont had been summarily fired (he made the band promise to tell everyone he had quit) and replaced by Peter Vandergelder, a saxophonist who--while not a bassist either--was at least an actual musician.

The Great Society, who styled themselves jazzy improvisers, were humiliated by the musical sophistication of the Blues Project.  The Society decided to rent a house in Mill Valley, live communally and rehearse twice a day.  At this time, the Great Society were David Miner (guitar, vocals), Grace Slick (vocals, guitar, sometimes doubling on bass), Darby Slick (lead guitar), Peter Vander Gelder (bass, saxophone) and Jerry Slick (drums). While unsophisticated, The Great Society were neither blues nor folk, and didn't sound like anyone else playing live or on the radio, and Grace Slick was always a major presence, so while The Blues Project were the musical highlight, the Great Society were also memorable performers for the lucky attendees of the Avalon's first nights.

UPDATE: A knowledgeable Italian pointed out that in Spring 1966, the lead singer for The Blues Project was Emmaratta Marx, who was in the band for about two months. Although she only performed with the band for a few months, her presence with the Blues Project's stunning debut must have helped confirm the notion to the San Francisco underground that successful bands had female lead vocalists (or "chick singers" as they were called then).

Next: April 29-30, 1966 Big Brother and The Holding Company/Grass Roots

1 comment:

  1. A little more about The Blues Project trip in San Francisco.

    On that first trip, they took along a whole batch of friends and supporters from Greenwich Village, including photographer Alice Ochs and black chick singer Emmaretta Marks (this is the correct spelling of her name), who, for a brief period sang back-up vocals with the band. She can be heard on the fade-out of the "Where's The Smoke There's Fire" single recorded in May '66 and released on Verve Records one month later.