Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco May 19, 1966: Grateful Dead/Wildflower/The Outfit Straight Theater Benefit

This post is part of a series analyzing every show at The Avalon Ballroom. Above is the poster for the event (h/t Ross Hannan for the scan).

Although Chet Helms controlled the lease on the Avalon (apparently $1500 a month, which was ultimately controlled by the Masons, through a sub-lessor), he sometimes let like minded folks use the venue. The Straight Theater, an old movie theater on 1702 Haight, used at the time as a rehearsal hall by The Grateful Dead and others, was trying to get a dance hall permit from the City of San Francisco. An old depression era law controlled the issuance of permits, which had devolved into a way for various downtown interests to control competition. The Matrix, for example, was not allowed to let patrons dance, and sometimes people were even arrested for it.

Bill Graham had initially used his predecessor's (Charles Sullivan) permit, but had been under tremendous pressure from the City until Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason publically embarrassed the city into issuing the permit. Helms had managed to get his permit due to the fact that one of his roommates (Terence Hallinan) was well-connected to politics through his father, a legendary labor attorney. It is an interesting comment on the San Francisco scene that Chet Helms allowed the Avalon to be used on an off-night (May 19 was a Wednesday) to host a benefit for a Permit for a potential competitor.

This show wass the first time the Grateful Dead played the Avalon, altough  since it was not a Family Dog production, it was not the first time the Dead played for The Family Dog (this would occur 9 days later).  A pristine board tape of both Grateful Dead sets survives.  The Dead had evolved from just covering blues numbers to playing elaborately arranged songs.  Much of their material was obscure folk and jug band music that would remain in their repertoire off and on into the 1990s, like “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Beat It On Down The Line.”  At the same time, they had started writing their own songs, most of which will not even survive through the end of 1966.  They still do covers, however, including blues (“It’s A Sin”), R&B (“Good Loving”) and even country (“Silver Threads and Golden Needles”). Every number except two “Viola Lee Blues” (7:24) and “Early In The Morning” (6:15) clocks in under 4 minutes, and many are under 3 minutes. The two sets together feature 17 songs and about 70 minutes of music.

The Wildflower had formed at Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts, but the key members were former South Bay folkies, so they were well-connected to the San Francisco underground scene from the beginning. Although their recorded output is relatively slim, all that survives is excellent, and the band were key members of the scene. Their story is fascinating and complex, and deserves to be considered in its entirety

The Outfit were an obscure Mill Valley group.  The band members were all more interested in being on the scene than actually gigging, or even rehearsing.  Like all such bands throughout time, they made a point of playing obscure and undanceable songs. They had a backer, a wannabe hippie heir to the Zellerbach fortune, who paid their bills.  The cousin of one of the guitarists (Robert Resner) was the brother of the manager of the Straight Theatre, so they had a built-in rehearsal hall and knew everyone. Their ‘manager’ was Bard Dupont, the original bassist of the Great Society.  The Outfit did not play very many gigs, but they were always ‘on the scene‘.  The Outfit bassist, John Ciambotti, would end up in Marin band Clover with Huey Lewis. More notoriously, lead guitarist Bobby Beausoleil, after a stint in a group called Orkustra, ended up with Charles Manson and has been in prison since his murder conviction in 1970.

Next: May 20-21, 1966 Love/Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band/Big Brother and The Holding Company

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