Thursday, November 26, 2009

Avalon Ballroom June 17-18, 1966: Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band/Oxford Circle

This post is part of a series analyzing every performance at the Avalon Ballroom

June 17-18, 1966 Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band/Oxford Circle

Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band had supported Love at the Avalon the month before, but they returned in June as headliners. Beefheart was seen as a blues musician with a big voice, rather than the avant-garde experimentalist he would become. The Magic Band at this time would have been Doug Mono and Alex St. Clair on guitars, Jerry Handley on bass and Paul Blakely on drums.

Oxford Circle were making what appears to be their San Francisco debut. The group were from Davis, CA, near Sacramento, just 75 miles Northeast of The Avalon. Davis had a newly-opened (1959) branch of the University of California, and between the college town and Sacramento proper there were a lot of gigs and a lively music scene. The Oxford Circle had originally been a surf band called The Hideaways, but as their music moved towards a British Invasion style, they changed their name to The Oxford Circle, because it sounded more English, and was the name of a woman's dorm at UC Davis. They were one of the most popular bands in the Davis/Sacramento area.

However, unlike other groups popular on the teen dance circuit, the Oxford Circle was starting to do their own thing, so they fit in very well at the Avalon. Their music was modeled more on the harder rocking bands like The Yardbirds and Them, and more and more time was being allotted to lead guitarist Dehner Patten. Lead singer Gary Yoder was starting to write his own songs, and along with the solid foundation of bassist Jim Keylor and drummer Paul Whaley, the experienced Oxford Circle were a powerful live band. Many underground San Francisco groups were made up of folkies still struggling to figure out electric instruments;  the Oxford Circle was already made up of rock and roll veterans ripe for something wilder. The band were instant crowd favorites in San Francisco.

San Francisco and the Bay Area has a great sense of self-importance (to be kind about it), and an innate tendency to look down its nose at the surrounding areas. Oxford Circle had been trying to break into Bill Graham's Fillmore for some time, but Graham wanted no part of them. Abruptly, after getting booked by the Avalon, and particularly after rocking the house, Graham invited Oxford Circle to audition for him, so they opened a show for Them at the Fillmore on June 23, and two weeks later were booked with The Turtles (July 5-6). Many San Francisco bands noticed that Bill Graham waited for the hipper Chet Helms to figure out who was right for San Francisco, and then used his financial leverage to get them into the Fillmore. 

In the liner notes for their Big Beat cd (see below), Yoder recalls auditioning for Chet Helms and playing on the bill the same night, and being booked for two weeks later. This suggests that Oxford Circle had played a previous show at the Avalon, probably on June 3 or 4 (opening for Grass Roots and Big Brother). It also suggests that many more bands played the Avalon than appeared on the poster, an idea borne out by the number of groups who recall playing at the Avalon and yet don't appear on the poster.

One unique aspect of the June 17-18 weekend of shows is that we have a pretty good idea of how the bands sounded. Recordings from the Avalon in 1966 are few and far between, but there are extant tapes of both Captain Beefheart and Oxford Circle from this period, and they very well have been from one of these nights. Avalon soundman and partner Bob Cohen did tape many Avalon shows, and kept the best of them. In 1997, Big Beat Records released a tremendous cd from Cohen's tapes, The Oxford Circle Live At The Avalon 1966. The exact date of the show is uncertain, as Oxford Circle played the Avalon many times, but at the very least we have a complete and lively document of how the Circle really sounded live. Alec Palao's liner notes give the complete story of The Oxford Circle, along with some great photos as well. The cd is a must-have for any fans of San Francisco bands and good music in general.

A Captain Beefheart tape from the Avalon in 1966 also circulates. It is only about 4 songs long, and hardly of the quality of Bob Cohen's perfectly preserved recording, but it gives a picture of the Captain's 1966 sound. As with many old tapes, there is no way to be certain which night at the Avalon it represents, but this is a rare bill where tapes allow us to know what it must have sounded like in general if not precisely.

Next: June 24-25 Big Brother and The Holding Company/Quicksilver Messenger Service


  1. I was at this show...I saw the OXFORD CIRCLE at frat party...and I actually got several of their 45s (I was a DJ in college)...While I was there I sat next to and talked to Captain Beefheart the bar.

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