Friday, May 28, 2010

895 O'Farrell Street (at Polk), San Francisco, CA The Western Front

(a poster for the Western Front concert featuring The Youngbloods, Wildflower and Initial Shock on December 1, 1967. h/t Ross for the scan)

The Western Front is a very obscure rock venue in San Francisco, only open in 1967, and mainly known only to poster collectors. I don't think it was ever financially successful as a rock venue, and its only through posters that we know of the venue at all. Although we know of some 1967 shows, I can't say I'm aware of any review, tape or eyewitness account of any of the psychedelic rock shows from 1967.

Nonetheless, The Western Front has an interesting history that provides an interesting reflection on the commercial history of rock music in San Francisco. The information posted here is the best available to me at this time. For reasons that will become clear, this is an exceedingly difficult venue to research, but anyone with useful information is encouraged to Comment or email me (and let me know if I can post it).

The Psychedelic Cattleman's Association
The original "Family Dog" partnership had formed in a house on Pine Street called "The Dog House" (because of various dogs that lived there). The first three Family Dog dances were produced by a quartet of House residents: Luria Castell, Alton Kelly, Jack Towle and Ellen Harmon. The 1965 shows were hugely successful, but the residents were not really prepared to ride the horse, and Chet Helms and others took over. By 1967, however, it was clear that Helms and Bill Graham had taken the Family Dog's initial concept--itself directly inspired by goings on at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada in Summer 1965--and founded thriving businesses. The original partners, although they had given up the Dog name willingly, were now looking to get back into the rock promotion business.
Calling themselves the Psychedelic Cattleman's Association, the quartet promoted a series of concerts at the newly opened Western Front, at 895 O'Farrell at Polk, near the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. The venue was only 4 blocks from the Avalon, and the impressive connections of the founding partnership netted a dramatic Kelly-Mouse poster and an impressive opening night lineup. In his June 28 Chronicle column (above), Ralph Gleason wrote:
tonight at Polk & O'Farrell, a new rock place called The Western Front is opening with Big Brother & The Holding Co., The Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Segal Schwall Blues Band [sic], the Charlatans, the Congress of Wonders and the Bill Ham-Jerry Granelli-Fred Marshall music-and-light show, "Light-Sound-Dimension."
The Quicksilver and Big Brother are there only tonight. The rest of the show remains through the weekend. 
Western Front is open six nights a week. They are appealing for a dance permit next week. Meanwhile it's concert style only. The place is reputed to be larger than the Fillmore, incidentally.
The Cattlemen had a venue and the connections, but an archaic San Francisco law required a City Permit in order to allow dancing. These permits were used as a means of control by various forces in San Francisco, and in particular were used to prevent rock venues where communities didn't want them located. Despite San Francisco's historical reputation as Baghdad-By-The-Bay, in the 1960s it was still very much like Footloose-By-The-Bay. Opening without a dance permit meant that people could listen to Quicksilver and Big Brother, but if they began to dance they would be arrested (try it at home: get in the mood, stand up and put on the first Quicksilver album--how long before they take you downtown?). The police had a vested interest in shutting down hippie venues, and arresting dancers who may have been carrying illegal substances was a proven method of harassing venues.

The Psychedelic Cattleman's Association put on another show the next weekend (July 7-8) with Sandy Bull, The Hobbits and Light-Sound-Dimension, a less dance-oriented billing, but as far as I know the venue went dark after that. I have to assume the PCA did not get their dance permit, and Bill Graham and Chet Helms were spared a competitor that had uber-hip underground connections, if little business experience.

The Western Front re-opened in late September. I do not know if they had received a Dance Permit by this time. Because a surviving poster (left) from September 22-23 does not say "Dance" I would assume that the venue had not received the Permit. There were shows for the next six weekends, although no sign of any sort of "six days a week" program.

I do not know who was promoting the Western Front at this point. I would have to assume that if the Cattleman's Association (the original Dog quartet) had still been the driving force, it would have been clearer from the poster. On the other hand, the San Francisco rock Underground was still quite small in 1967, and everyone knew each other, so the shift in management may not have been major.

The brief run of shows through October (below) is fascinating to rock historians, as they featured a series of interesting bands, many of which had just moved to San Francisco. Its important to remember, however, none of the albums who played the Western Front in September and October had released an album yet, and they were all quite obscure at the time. I do not know of a review or tape of any of these shows, or even an eyewitness account.

September 22, 1967 The Other Half/Freedom Highway/Peace
The Other Half had relocated from Los Angeles, but I believe Craig Tarwater had taken over the lead guitar duties from the legendary Randy Holden. Freedom Highway had formed in San Francisco, but they had moved to Marin by this time. The band Peace is unknown to me.

September 23, 1967 The New Delhi River Band/Mad River/The Other Half
Palo Alto's New Delhi River Band (who included David Nelson and Dave Torbert) were popular in the South Bay, but were struggling to attract attention outside of their home turf. This was one of their few San Francisco performances.

Mad River had moved to the Bay Area from Yellow Springs, OH in Spring 1967, and had taken up residence in Berkeley. They ultimately released two albums and became quite legendary, but at the time they were just another band trying to make it.

September 28-29, 1967 Blue Cheer/Wildflower/Jesse Fuller
Blue Cheer were becoming popular around the Bay Area from constant performing, but they were still some months shy of their recording debut Vincebus Eruptum.

The Oakland based Wildflower had been together since late 1965, a rarity for psychedelic bands. While an excellent live band who were present at the beginning of the scene, they had been unable to capitalize on their early arrival. The band did have a following, however, which was probably while they could headline two nights.

Oakland's Jesse Fuller was a unique artist, a sort of bluesman who wrote his own songs, many of which were covered by rock artists.

October 6, 1967 Sons Of Champlin/Frumious Bandersnatch/Morning Glory
The poster for October 6 says "Dance Lesson." The previous week, the Straight Theater, another venue having Dance Permit problems, had offered "Dance Lessons," followed by three hours of dance practice, accompanied by the Grateful Dead. No doubt the Western Front was following their lead.

Marin's Sons Of Champlin were remaking themselves from a sort of Beatles style band into a psychedelic R&B band, but although they would have an extensive career--they're still touring and have a loyal fan base--at this time they weren't fully established as a hip band yet.

Frumious Bandersnatch, while founded in Lafayette, CA, in Contra Costa County, were currently based in industrial West Oakland. This configuration of the Frumious was more Airplane-like, with a female vocalist. This lineup broke up in late 1967, when their equipment was stolen, and the group returned to the wilds of Lafayette and re-appeared with a new triple guitar sound in Spring 1968.

Morning Glory were from Marin. Their album on Fontana (Two Suns Worth) did not come out until 1968.

October 7, 1967 The Sons Of Champlin/Frumious Bandersnatch/Initial Shock
Initial Shock were from Montana, of all places. The group had been playing there because one member was assigned to an Air Force base there. When he got out, the group relocated to San Francisco. This was one of their earlier shows in the Bay Area.

October 13-14, 1967 Morning Glory/Indian Head Band/Peace
The posters say "Dance Academy" from here on, again apparently following the Straight Theater's lead.

Indian Head Band were from Castro Valley, then just a rural farming town in the East Bay (now a prosperous commuter suburb). They played improvised "Raga Rock," featuring guitarist Hal Wagenet and a female vocalist with operatic training. Wagenet later joined Its A Beautiful Day.

October 20-21, 1967 Blue Cheer/Other Half/Wildflower

October 27-28, 1967 Charlatans/Anonymous Artists Of America/Frumious Bandersnatch
The Charlatans had of course started it all in June 1965 at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, NV, but nothing had gone right for them since then. Despite their name recognition, they didn't have a large following.

The Anonymous Artists Of America had been based in the Santa Cruz Mountains, just outside of Palo Alto. Around this time they relocated to Potrero Hill in San Francisco, although I am not certain of the timeline yet. They featured a primitive synthesizer called a Buchla Machine, and played weird improvised music.

I do not know of other shows at The Western Front until December.

December 1-3, 1967 Youngbloods/Wildflower/Initial Shock
This show (poster up top) featured The Youngbloods, who had relocated to San Francisco in September 1967, and had two albums under their belt, along with a modest hit called "Get Together" (its re-release in 1969 became much more famous). The more substantial booking, along with the month gap, leads me to think that this show was put on by a different promoter than the September-October run.

December 1967-June 1969
I know nothing for certain about the Western Front for the 18-month period between December 1967 and June 1969. I only know two other facts, and I can't date them definitively or even confirm them:

The Western Front served as the Grateful Dead's rehearsal hall 
I have heard this fact, but have been unable to confirm it. It is very hard to pin down dates of rehearsal halls, for obvious reasons. I would assume it was their rehearsal hall after the Potrero Theater (308 Connecticut Street) but before Novato, which would put it in this window, but I don't know for certain. In any case, I don't know whether it was their hall for a long or short period of time, if it even was.

Jim and Artie Mitchell promoted rock shows at 895 O'Farrell

Jim and Artie Mitchell were two brothers from Antioch, who played an important role--like it or not--in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s. They also were instrumental in various events, such as FBI warnings on Videotapes (stemming from copyright cases) and commercializing lap dances (supposedly). For the purposes of this blog, however, I am only interested in the fact reported in a biography of the Mitchells (David McCumber's 1992 X-Rated) that the Mitchells promoted rock shows at 895 O'Farrell before figuring out a more lucrative use for the site. I have been unable to confirm this. I don't know how early the Mitchells were using 895 O'Farrell, and if they had any involvement in the above list of shows, whether they promoted other shows in 1968-69, or whether this is just a tall tale.

895 O'Farrell-Afterlife
895 O'Farrell became the Mitchell Brothers Theater, initially showing "adult" films, mostly made by the brothers themselves. Some of them were quite famous, as these things go, and the Mitchells were a big part of San Francisco's hedonistic 70s. The theater moved towards live performers, and a whole other series of legends and confrontations. Ultimately Jim shot and killed his brother Artie in a dispute in 1991, and went to prison for several years. Jim Mitchell died in 2007.

The Mitchell Brothers and their theater are infamous, and the theater remains open to this day (two doors down from the Great American Music Hall). I have avoided mentioning its specific history because it is outside of my scope and I am not interested in the search engine traffic that would come my way, but its interesting in an icky sort of way. Don't look into it if you're at work.

As a result of the Mitchell Brothers Theater, no revival of the Western Front was forthcoming. Needless to say, some efforts at researching the Mitchell Brothers revealed precious little about their efforts as rock promoters in the late 1960s, although they were both part of the hip underground scene in various ways. The Western Front has become another lost venue, with one famous poster and a few obscure ones, but the old Pontiac dealership seems to have had a considerably more interesting history than most sites, even if that history remains mostly untold.

(For a more elegant presentation of this material, with a thorough run of posters, see here)


  1. Great job as ever - a few notes:

    - The first shows ran from June 28 to July 2. The opening night saw BBHC, QMS, The Charlatans and Tom & Lee play. The other nights were as listed by RJG with Siegel Schwall Blues Band, Charlatans, Congress of Wonders.
    - September 22 had Peace additionally perform with the Other Half also playing on September 23.
    - September 28 and 29 Blue Cheer, Jesse Fuller played in addition to The Wildflower with Lights by Dr PH Martin's Magic Medicine Show
    - July 7 and 8 also saw the Congress of Wonders perform.
    - October 6 sees "Dance Lesson" appear on the posters for the first time. After that "Dance Academy" appears. Additionally, I have a slightly different interpretation of the October 6 and 7 shows. On the 6th, I have The Sons of Champlin, Frumious Bandersnatch, Morning Glory, Lights by Dr P.H. Martin's Magic Medicine Show and on the 7th The Sons of Champlin, Frumious Bandersnatch, Initial Shock, Lights by Dr P.H. Martin's Magic Medicine Show.
    - The poster for the October 20-21 shows also has "Eric Announcing" listed - could well be an MC.
    - The Mitchell Brothers opened their shows on Independence Day - July 4, 1969.

    I have updated the Other Venue art page that had not be touched for more than a year to include a really nice John Thompson ad for the September 28 show with The Wildflower:

    Finally, at some point later today I will mail an unusual artifact of the Psychedelic Cattlemen's Association over.

  2. Great stuff. I updated the post accordingly. I was trying to guess about some lineups based on posters, but your information was way better.

    Any idea who was promoting the Western Front in September-October?

  3. Do you guys have a list of QMS shows? If not, I'd like to take a stab at compiling one.

  4. Yes, I've got a good one, I'll send it to you. Haven't got around to doing anything with it yet.

  5. We should probably do a cross check on the QMS list. Yours was what I considered to be the master but I have some red lined entries on mine that I fear may not have been sent through to you. I will happily merge tomorrow if needs be.

    Strangely enough, I have always had a question mark against their playing the Western Front opening show. I know the Charlatans and Tom & Lee were added and I had thought that this might be at the expense of QMS. My BBHC list has traditionally excluded QMS from this.

  6. For JGMF: I have a complete 'QMS Performance List' on my blog
    check it!