Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Ark, 15 Landsdowne Street, Boston, MA January-June 1969 (Boston V)


The only flyer for a show at The Ark in Boston--or at least the only surviving one--promotes the Grateful Dead performing Monday through Wednesday, April 21-23, 1969

By early 1969, the Boston Tea Party was the flagship of Boston's underground rock scene. The Psychedelic Supermarket hadn't exactly closed, but it was only booking shows intermittently (by this time using the name The Unicorn, which had been the name of owner George Papadopolis' folk club). About a mile and half from the Tea Party, neophyte promoter Charlie Thibeaux built a rock club over at 15 Landsdowne Street, called The Ark. The club didn't do well, actually, but it marked the beginning of making the Kenmore Square neighborhood into a leading music and entertainment district for Boston.

Although it is easy to google the Boston Tea Party, the Psychedelic Supermarket and The Ark with reference to the 1960s, there is almost no systematic information about the period. Lots of people refer to the glory of 60s Boston rock, but the views are largely impressionistic, or based on somewhat vague websites focusing rather narrowly on posters. One of these days (not today) I will post my Boston chronology, but that is a mammoth project even by my standards. Since there is no systematic information about The Ark, this post will gather it together here, along with a list of bands booked at the venue during its six months of operation.

A promotional bumper sticker for The Ark (thanks to the Boston Tea Party FB page)

The Ark, 15 Landsdowne Street, Boston, MA

The Ark had opened on Friday, January 24, 1969. The model of The Ark seemed to be a Boston variation on New York's Electric Circus. I went into the peculiar history of the Electric Circus when I discussed the Dead's appearance there in 1968, so I won't recap it all here. Suffice to say the Circus had multiple levels, and was more of an "environment." Any performing rock band was just one element of the evening.

The Ark had three stories, and it is generally referred to in the Boston Globe as a "disco." I think there was a stage on one of the stories, but the other two were for hanging out or dancing. In general, it seems that the Ark had a live band on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and for the rest of the week they presented theater events on the stage. I know little about theater, but the performances seemed to have been pretty forward looking stuff: Bread And Puppet Theater, The SF Mime Troupe and so on. For music, there was usually a more modest act on Thursday, joined by a higher profile headliner for Friday and Saturday.

The two original owners of the Boston Tea Party had capitalized the club with just $850 in early 1967, and the venue was heavily dependent on volunteer labor. The Ark, in contrast, besides founder Charlie Thibeau, had 17 stockholders. Per the Boston Globe, they were "local doctors, university people and businessmen." The Globe said that 10 of the 26 employees of The Ark were full-time.

On The Ark's opening night, January 24, 1969 the headliners were the Los Angeles band Spirit, joined by The Bar-Kays, Otis Redding's backing band. The few histories of Boston rock, however, never mention the debut of The Ark. Could it have been because that since over at the Tea Party that weekend was the debut of Led Zeppelin (Thursday through Sunday, January 23-26), whose debut album had just been released? Those with too many records will note the irony of Randy California and Led Zeppelin debuting the same weekend in Boston. A more poetic writer than me would find a metaphor.

The July 1965 calendar for Club 47, at 47 Palmer Street (Harvard Square) in Cambridge, MA

The Road To The Ark

The history of underground psychedelic rock in the 60s in Boston was completely different than in any other major American city. Broadly speaking, cities had two main paths. The first, and most famous path, was the San Francisco one: dissatisfied long haired youth provides an audience for local bands influenced by jazz, BB King and Revolver, congregating in underused downtown venues in a fading part of town. Before anyone knew it, particularly in the West there was a Fillmore or an Avalon (or the Crystal in Portland, the Family Dog in Denver, Vulcan Gas in Austin or Eagles Ballroom in Seattle), and even if the venues didn't persist, the audiences did. Bands like the Grateful Dead or Canned Heat would come through town and help create a new underground economy.

The other trend was the negative version of the first one. Some local promoters would try and book some long-haired bands, but it didn't lead to much. The cops might be against it, there wasn't a promising part of town, or the promoters didn't have it together. The Dead, or Canned Heat, or Iron Butterfly might have passed through, but to the extent they played those cities, they were grudgingly absorbed into the regular Civic Auditorium-type gigs, just like Top 40 bands or country stars. The only real exception to this dichotomy was New York City, whose history has to be dissected by Borough or Neighborhood, which you will find generally fall into the two main paradigms, but distributed throughout the city itself.

Boston rock had a different history. Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the Charles River from Boston, was one of the principal birthplaces of the “Folk Boom” of the early 1960s. Fueled by students from the many colleges in Cambridge, students who were serious about music as art rather than just entertainment flocked to places like Club 47, at 47 Mt Auburn Street. Club 47 was originally a jazz club, but on Tuesday nights they had a sort of "hoot night," and in Fall '58 a Boston University student named Joan Baez showed up. Things happened. Cambridge and Greenwich Village were the twin anchors of a rising interest in folk music that wasn't just decontextualized re-tellings of old folk songs (it is telling that Joan Baez was from Palo Alto, and that the Kingston Trio got their start there, but it's another saga). 

Boston and Cambridge was one of the first outposts for the stirrings of what would become "the counterculture." It wasn't just Joan Baez. The Jim Kweskin Jug Band introduced jug band music to America, and they would have been hugely influential even if they weren't important to Jerry Garcia's idea of how music should be performed--but they were, when he saw them in Berkeley in March, 1964. That wasn't all. Two Harvard Assistant Professors experimented with something called "LSD-25" as early as 1962, and while Tim Leary wasn't Owsley, Cambridge and Boston weren't naive a few years later, unlike pretty much everywhere else.

When the Beatles and the British Invasion came in, New England jumped in with both feet, from Boston to Nantucket and every suburb. Nearer the Charles River, however, the response was sophisticated, if no less enthusiastic. The Charles River Valley Boys, for example, played bluegrass versions of Beatles songs, a sort of second order joke that wouldn't have flown in a lot of towns. So on one hand, downtown Boston and Cambridge were absolutely ready for the rock explosion that would follow, as "folk-rock" followed the Beatles (via The Byrds, The Lovin' Spoonful and others) and the local bands who formed in their wake. Yet Boston's predisposition to the oncoming music revolution had some unexpected consequences.

In downtown Boston, there were plenty of venues, serving the student and faculty populations of all the colleges and universities. Sure, many of them mostly had theater and symphony productions, but they had no restrictions on having folk acts or other kind of music on off nights. Local Boston promoters had been booking "long-haired" folk acts since the early 60s, so booking black blues bands from Chicago or somewhat longer-haired musicians with pop hits was no problem. What that meant, paradoxically, was that the hot touring acts who played the West Coast ballrooms for hippie entrepreneurs--Butterfield Blues Band or Jefferson Airplane--were playing for better capitalized promoters in Boston as part of the regular entertainment scene. There were well-paying weekend gigs at college gyms, and Sunday nights when the Symphonies weren't using their halls. 

So the "psychedelic" underground in Boston was really underground, not at all part of the record companies mainstream. All those bands were playing Boston, at colleges or other events, and Boston college students and local hippies were fully tuned in, but there was no Fillmore (or Electric Ballroom like Chicago, or Eagles like Seattle) that was one-stop shopping for the local hipsters. The Boston venues had entirely different arcs. There were a few predecessors to The Ark, which I will briefly address.

Boston Tea Party, 1967
The Boston Tea Party, at 53 Berkeley Street, had opened on January 20, 1967. Ray Riepen and David Hahn were the founding partners, supposedly opening with a capitalization of a mere $850, and dependent on a lot of volunteer labor. The site had previously been a synagogue, and then a coffee shop called The Moondial. Riepen had come from Kansas City to Harvard Law School for a Masters Program in Fall '66. The club was opened as an underground concert venue like the Fillmore. The legal capacity of the Boston Tea Party was 550, increased to 720 in 1968 when they added another fire escape. Whether exceeded or not, that made it half the size of the Fillmore. No matter what, the Tea Party wasn't going to compete directly with the local promoters booking shows at colleges, arenas and concert halls.

The Boston Tea Party of 1967-68 is most remembered--on the web, at least--for being the home-away-from-home for the Velvet Underground. Scholarship on the Velvets is epic, and the pinnacle of it is Richie Unterberger's chronology White Light, White Heat. Without VU scholars, we would know surprisingly little about the Boston Tea Party. While VU were famous for the adage that "not many people bought their record, but everyone who did formed a band," it's important to remember that  Boston Tea Party was an underground hipster joint, and not many people in Boston had heard the Velvet Underground. If more people had heard them, the band wouldn't have been any more popular. They weren't that kind of band.

Psychedelic Supermarket, 1967 (and Beyond)
The Psychedelic Supermarket opened in September, 1967 under peculiar circumstances (for my old blog post on the subject, see here). Promoter George Popodopolis had run a folk club called The Unicorn, a direct competitor to Club 47. When Eric Clapton and Cream were booked for their first US Tour, they had  been scheduled to play a new "psychedelic" ballroom in suburban Brighton called The Crosstown Bus. The Bus closed, however, and Popodopolis rapidly opened the Psychedelic Supermarket to accommodate the dropped Cream booking (September 9-16, 1967).

The Psychedelic Supermarket was a converted parking garage, apparently holding about 300 people on an entirely concrete floor. The venue had some great bookings, but it is not fondly remembered by fans or bands. The sound was poor, the venue unappealing and the promoter's financial practices were--shall we say--not fondly recalled. The official address was 590 Commonwealth Avenue, but the actual venue was back down in alley. The Supermarket ultimately changed its name to The Unicorn (the name of the promoter's old coffee shop) and seemed to have existed intermittently through 1969.

Boston Tea Party, 1968
The Boston Tea Party muddled onwards into 1968. A few significant events gave it a life that may not have been anticipated.
  • The original Boston Tea Party partners (Ray Riepen and David Hahn) added another one, Boston University student Don Law Jr. Don Law's father had been a staff producer for Columbia Records. Law Sr had produced Robert Johnson's only recording session in San Antonio, and he had run Columbia's country music division in Nashville since 1952, working with major Columbia stars like Johnny Cash. Law Sr had even produced Marty Robbins' "El Paso." Although Law Senior had taken mandatory retirement in 1967, he was still an independent producer. His son was just a student, but he had been born into the popular music business.
  • The Boston Tea Party bet heavily on touring bands, particularly English ones. Throughout 1968, plenty of English rock legends came through; Procol Harum, the Yardbirds, Traffic, Jeff Beck Group, Ten Years After and more. Many of those bands would play Fillmore East as well as the Tea Party, as did some San Francisco bands like Steve Miller or Quicksilver. The Psychedelic Supermarket still booked shows, but the Tea Party was the place that everyone remembers.
  • On March 15, 1968, WBCN-fm was the first underground rock music station in the Boston area. Don Law and Ray Riepen were the owners. Initially they broadcast out of a dressing room at the Tea Party. The most popular all-night dj was a jive talker called The Woofuh Goofuh. A true Boston legend--apocryphally, many came down from a long acid trip listening to Woofuh Goofuh jiving and playing blues and R&B records far into the night--his reign ended around December 1968. The Woofuh Goofuh was Peter Wolf, lead singer of the Hallucinations. When that band broke up, and Wolf joined the J Geils Band, he had to give up the dj gig. WBCN went on to become the dominant rock station in the region.
  • MGM Records signed a bunch of up-and-coming Boston bands, like Ultimate Spinach, Beacon Street Union and Orpheus. MGM staff producer Alan Lorber, declared that Boston was the next San Francisco. Lorber coined the catch-phrase "The Bosstown Sound." The bands were actually pretty good, but there wasn't a "Boss-Town sound." The ad campaign backfired. Hippies were suspicious of anything promoted by "The Man." So some good Boston bands got overlooked because the rest of the country's hippies thought they were just hype. The Bosstown Sound debacle was a cautionary tale for record industry promotions of underground bands for the balance of the 20th century.

Boston, 1969
Come 1969, rock music was booming nationwide and Boston was no exception. FM radio, led by WBCN-fm, had busted the hegemony of AM radio, suggesting that rock bands could thrive as live attractions without a hit that was easy to hum. At the same time, the hip but tiny Boston Tea Party had the critical booking relationships with touring English bands, but they couldn't necessarily afford them. Enter The Ark. 

The Ark had an official capacity of 1700. Since there were three stories, I don't know whether this was the capacity for the concert venue or the entire building. Per the Boston Globe, the opening night party at The Ark had 3200 people. I take that to mean that numerous patrons came and went, although it could also just be hype. Certainly, I don't doubt that like most general admission venues it was conveniently easy to oversell the venue beyond the restrictions required by the Fire Department. One of the unspoken economic drivers of "Festival Seating" was the ease with which a successful booking could pack the house, while leaving some deniability for the promoter.

With the 1700-capacity, the Ark could compete directly with local symphony halls or college arenas for booking bands. The fact that they didn't do so suggests an inexperienced booking team. The Tea Party's Don Law had all the relationships with English touring bands, and many of the American ones, too. Thus the Tea Party got the bands that seem memorable today. Some good bands played The Ark, in fact (see below), but even at the time they weren't as high profile as the Tea Party bookings.

An ad from the Sunday, March 14, 1969 Boston Globe, in the Theater section. Upcoming Theater events are noted, with no reference to any bands on the weekends.

The Ark's business model was different than the Tea Party, as well. For one thing, it had multiple rooms and seemed to be a place to dance and hang out, as well as see bands. This model was borrowed from the Electric Circus in Manhattan. Appealing as this must have seemed, it turned out to be a poorly applied model. Young rock fans, primed by FM radio, took rock music seriously. Their appreciation was modeled on that of jazz fans, and not coincidentally. For rock fans who felt that rock bands were Serious Artists--let's be clear, Teenage Me was definitely such a person--performance was the reason to go. Dancing and hanging out were for afterwards. Seeing a band "In Concert" was like seeing a symphony orchestra in concert, not dancing at a club.

Also, on weeknights The Ark had theater instead of music. This seems to have been an only-in-Boston thing. Although I know little about theater history, even I recognize that the presentations were young and hip, befitting a college town full of arty university students. I think the audience for rock music and theater was totally different, however, so the variant booking policies probably didn't have much crossover. Certainly teenagers from the suburbs weren't very likely going to take the MTA to Kenmore Square to catch Bread And Puppet Theater. So The Ark had a unique business model, but it didn't turn out to be successful.

What Do We Know About The Ark?
As is typical of late 60s Boston rock history, there is far less information circulating than you would expect. This effect is magnified by the fact that the Tea Party moved to the site of The Ark in July 1969. Many old Boston hippies referred to the Landsdowne Street Tea Party as "The Ark," whether because they forgot, or liked to show off that they knew the difference (in San Francisco, the comparison was referring to the Fillmore West as The Carousel long after Bill Graham took it over and renamed it).

An article in The Harvard Crimson student newspaper (published February 28 1969) by regular Crimson rock writer Salahuddin I. Imam entitled “Boston’s White Rock Palaces” described the original Berkeley Street Tea Party as 

a large square hall with a low stage. When it is full of people, as it often is, the performers seem very close to the crowd nearly submerged by it—which makes it all very warm and intimate—not intimidating as is the case in some circus-like arenas. The simplicity of the setup does mean that acoustics are virtually non-existent, but that is made up for by the immediacy and directness of the sound, which comes out quite powerfully amplified over the speaker system.” 
The article ads “the crowds are hip, or perhaps too hip, because there is almost no dancing at the Tea Party. But then its probably just as well that people listen attentively to good music."

About The Ark, Imam said

“The building and the whole of the main dance hall of the Ark, a newly opened club, is much more interesting than the Tea Party's box-like shape. Not surprisingly, the major emphasis at the Ark is on creating an elaborate and stylized fantasy environment, with the music as more a contributing than dominating factor. This effort at atmosphere is sometimes pursued a little too relentlessly but the overall result is nevertheless an interesting, sometimes fascinating, blend of modern multi-media techniques. 

The walls curve and sway, the floor winds round and round in ramps that dip and rise. Most of the ground is covered in thick blue carpeting expect for the main dance floor, which is to be painted in bright colors. 

With all this structural complexity there is much acoustic modulation. The sound has definite variations in texture (depending on where you are in the building) though the volume is never weak anywhere, owing to the incredibly expensive and sophisticated sound system that the club uses. Surprisingly the system sounds best when records are being played between sets. 

One area of the floor is ringed by tent-like walls and you feel like walls and you feel like you're in the middle of a growing plant. Another, a raised section, is entirely strobe lit, great waterfalls of light white light, and people dance as if bathing. 

EVERY INCH of wall space is covered with light shows of various kinds indifferent themes, with pictures ranging from ten foot high shots of Janis Joplin's singing face to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Fascinating things happen in isolated corners with the slides, but these shows are in fact all pre-programmed by computer; there is not the spontaneity and musical relevance of the Tea Party's light show, but rather a static grace. 

The groups that play at the Ark are not established rock groups, which is in line with the club's intent of emphasizing the whole experience--light and colors and sound rather than solely the musical. Occasionally one is able to catch a really fine group that has not yet made its name. One such was a group called Man, who did a remarkable, aggressive gig recently at the Ark. 

Dancing is not frowned upon at the Ark as it is at the Tea Party and most people do take to the floor at some tome or other, though one is slightly dwarfted by the cavernous height of the ceiling. 

The Ark caters to a different set of interests than the Tea Party and does its thing pretty well.

The Ark Rock Performance History, January-July 1969

Spirit's second album on Ode Records, The Family That Plays Together, was released in December 1968.

January 24, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Spirit/The Bar-Kays (Friday)
January 25, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Spirit/Reality Sandwich
The Ark opened on the weekend of January 24, 1969. Spirit was from Los Angeles. In December 1968, Spirit had released their second album on Ode Records,  The Family That Plays Together. It was a great album, and a worthy followup to their amazing debut. The album was probably getting good airplay on WBCN. The album also featured Spirit's only hit single, "I've Got A Line On You," although I don't know if it was a hit in Boston. Spirit was a great live band, and guitarist Randy California was a major talent.

The Bar-Kays had been Otis Redding's backup band, and they had a recording career of their own. Four of the members had died in the December 10, 1967 plane crash that had killed Redding. Trumpeter Ben Cauley and bassist James Alexander had rebuilt the band. The Bar-Kays were not a regular part of Fillmore circuit bookings, so it made for an interesting pairing. Reality Sandwich, who replaced the Bar-Kays on Saturday night, are unknown to me.

The Boston Globe claimed that 3200 people attended the opening night party, obviously far more than the 1700-capacity was supposed to hold. Presumably many people came and went. I do not know of eyewitness accounts. That same weekend, Led Zeppelin was debuting at Boston Tea Party. Many years later, the estate of Randy (Wolfe) California sued Led Zeppelin for copyright violation, claiming Page had lifted the signature lick for "Stairway To Heaven" from a Spirit song called "Taurus."

February 16, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA Bunky and Jake/Earth Opera (Sunday)
I have only been able to find listings for certain shows at The Ark. I assume they booked rock bands at least every weekend, but it's difficult to speculate. The Ark generally did not have posters, so there are not artifacts to lean on. Apparently, the Bunky and Jake show was booked for Sunday night (per the Friday, February 14 Globe), so someone else likely played the weekend.

Andrea "Bunky" Skinner and Jake Jacobs had been folk musicians in Greenwich Village in various ensembles since the early 60s, and had each been in various bands. In 1968 the duo had released their debut album on Mercury Records, and in 1969 they had followed up with LAMF. I think the duo played in a jazzy style that was a little more expansive than just two guys playing guitar. The duo broke up later in '69, and Jacobs went on to form the group Jake And The Family Jewels.

Opening act Earth Opera was a Cambridge "psychedelic folk" band led by guitarist and singer Peter Rowan and his friend David Grisman, who mostly played electric mandolin. Rowan and Grisman had backgrounds in bluegrass, but in 1967 they had "gone electric." Their 1968 debut album on Elektra had a mixture of folk and psychedelic influences. The band would release a second album, The Great American Eagle Tragedy, later in 1969. That album had a number of guest musicians, including Bill Keith on pedal steel guitar and the enigmatic Jack Bonus on saxophone.

Boston Globe listing for The Ark on the weekend of March 6-8, 1969

March 6, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Eddie Floyd (Thursday)
March 7-8, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Flying Burrito Brothers/Eddie Floyd
Stax Records singer Eddie Floyd had scored big hits with "Raise Your Hand" and "Knock On Wood" in 1966. Joining Floyd for the weekend, was the Flying Burrito Brothers, who had just released their now-legendary debut album The Gilded Palace Of Sin in February 1969. They were on their first National tour. The initial Burritos lineup was fronted by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, supported by pedal steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow, bassist Chris Etheridge and ex-Byrd drummer Michael Clarke. Although the Burritos are legends today, and perhaps rightly so, they were initially a sloppy and under-rehearsed live band.

A few weekends earlier (February 20-23), the Flying Burrito Brothers had opened for The Byrds at the Boston Tea Party. On the night reviewed in the MIT student paper (The Tech), Parsons joined the Byrds to sing "Hickory Wind." Parsons and Hillman, both ex-Byrds, apparently joined in on other nights.

March 14 The Ark, Boston, MA: Otis and Lucille Spann (Thursday)
March 15-16 The Ark, Boston, MA: John Hammond/Otis and Lucille Spann
Otis Spann (1924-70) was perhaps Chicago's finest blues pianist. He had been in Muddy Waters band from 1952-68, and had played with numerous other greats. He had played on Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me," and had also recorded with BB King, Fleetwood Mac and many others. Spann's early '69 Blue Horizon album The Biggest Thing Since Colossus featured Peter Green, Danny Kirwan and John McVie from the Mac. Lucille Spann, Otis' wife, was a singer.

John Hammond was the son of legendary Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who had discovered--among others--Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan (and later Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan). The younger Hammond was an accomplished finger-style blues guitarist, having not only talent but access to the records, which had not been widely available in the late 50s. Hammond was a fine performer in both electric Chicago-type settings or as a solo acoustic performer. I'm not sure in which configuration he played The Ark. Hammond's current album would have been Sooner Or Later, which had been released on Atlantic in 1968.

March 20-21 The Ark, Boston, MA: Charlie Musselwhite/Elephant's Memory (Friday-Saturday)
Charlie Musselwhite had been born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis, and then ultimately to Chicago.  He was one of a small number of white musicians in Chicago (including Nick Gravenites, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop and a few others) who had stumbled onto the blues scene by themselves.

A Chicago club regular, Musselwhite eventually recorded an album for Vanguard in 1967 called Stand Back, which started to receive airplay on San Francisco’s new underground FM station, KMPX-fm. Friendly with the Chicago crowd who had moved to San Francisco, his band was offered a month of work in San Francisco in mid-1967, so Musselwhite took a month’s leave from his day job and stayed for a couple of decades.

Musselwhite released his second album on Vanguard, Stone Blues, in 1968. Sometime in 1969, Vanguard released Tennessee Woman. Musselwhite was a regular on the Bay Area club scene, and had played the Fillmore and Avalon as well. In Chicago, Musselwhite was just one of many fine blues acts, but in the Bay Area he stood out. 
Elephant's Memory was a New York band founded in 1968. In 1969, they would release their debut album on Buddah Records. A few years later, the band would be remembered for backing John Lennon and Yoko Ono live and on record. 

March 28-29 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: The Collectors (Friday-Saturday)
The Collectors were from Vancouver, and had roots back in the early 60s. The band featured lead singer Howie Vickers and guitarist Bill Henderson. The Collectors had released their debut album on Warner Brothers in 1968, produced by Dave Hassinger. The Collectors would release one more album in 1969. Howie Vickers left, and Henderson took over the lead vocals, which changed its name to Chilliwack (a Vancouver suburb).

April 4-5-6, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Taj Mahal (Friday-Sunday)
Taj Mahal (b. Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in 1942) had been raised in a musical family in Springfield, MA. He played in various musical ensembles in high school and in college (at U.Mass). By 1964 he had moved to the West Coast, and he formed a pioneering R&B combo called The Rising Sons, with Ry Cooder on lead guitar (a cd of their recordings was finally released in 1992). By early 1968, Taj had already signed and recorded his debut album with Columbia, with both Cooder and Jesse Ed Davis on guitars, although it would not be released until later in the year. 

Taj Mahal's equally excellent second album, The Natch'l Blues, still with Davis but without Ry Cooder, had been released later in '68. Sometime in 1969, probably later than this weekend, Taj Mahal would release his memorable Columbia electric/acoustic double album Giant Step/De Ole Folks At Home.

Given his Massachusetts background, this was probably an exciting homecoming. On stage, Taj Mahal was backed by a killer trio, with Davis on guitar, Gary Gillmore on bass and Chuck Blackwell on drums.

April 18-19, 1969  The Ark, Boston, MA: Cat Mother And The All-Night Newsboys (Friday-Saturday)
The Greenwich Village band Cat Mother and The All-Night Newsboys had just released their debut album on Elektra, The Street Giveth...And The Street Taketh Away, produced by no less than Jimi Hendrix. Both Cat Mother and Hendrix shared manager Mike Jeffery.

The Grateful Dead on stage at The Ark, Boston, MA, April 21, 1969

April 21-23, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead were booked April 21 through 23, a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. This in itself was a strange booking. Most "psychedelic" ballrooms weren't open except on weekends, although even the Tea Party had started to add such dates. When bands were on the road, and had a few days off between weekends, why not play a few weeknight gigs, and take the door? Otherwise, they would be making no money. This was particularly true with English bands on tour, which is why you see weekday bookings at the Tea Party for UK bands in 1969.

The Dead were playing Clark University in Worcester on Saturday (ultimately rescheduled to Sunday, April 20), and they had a big weekend booking at the Electric Theater in Chicago (on April 25-26). So they had nothing else to do, and of course no money--so why not take a flyer on an unknown, brand new psychedelic ballroom with an inexperienced promoter?

It is remarkable, and generally unremarked, how many chances the Grateful Dead took on the road with rookie promoters in strange cities. Whether Charlie Thibeau called the Dead, or the Dead called The Ark, the Tea Party wasn't known to have a pre-existing connection to the band. In any case, even if the Dead weren't popular in Boston, they were still infamous, and for a new club, that mattered. So the band played three April weeknights in Boston.The Grateful Dead's Monday-through-Wednesday booking at The Ark seems to have been the first weeknight music booking at the venue. It's also the only one where I am aware of some sort of flyer or poster (above). I do know that Monday was a Boston Holiday, Patriots Day, and the Boston Marathon was run on that day.

Since all three nights of the Grateful Dead performances at The Ark were taped and preserved, more or less in their entirety, Deadheads feel that they "know" these shows. And they do, up to a point. But an abstract listening to a live recording is just a single window. Were the shows crowded? Did the audience like the Grateful Dead, or were they just there for a party? Did people wander over from the disco, or did concertgoers wander out? It was a weeknight--when did the Dead start playing and when did they finish? Was there any opening act? We have the tapes--it's the Dead--but we really have no sense of what the shows were like (I have discussed the Dead's 60s adventures in Boston in greater detail here).

April 25-26, 1969  The Ark, Boston, MA: The Foundations/Chris Smither (Friday-Saturday)
The Foundations were an English band, although most Americans who recall their hit don't realize it. In late '68, The Foundations had a huge US hit with "Build Me Up Buttercup," which any American in Junior High at the time has permanently imprinted in their brain, whether they liked the song or not. The band sang very much in the Motown style, but in fact they were from England.

Chris Smither (b.1944) was from Florida, but had ended up in Cambridge in the mid-60s. A bluesy singer-songwriter, he would release his debut album in 1970. Smither's song "Love Me Like A Man" became a signature song for fellow Cambridge singer Bonnie Raitt, a friend of his. Smither had various ups and downs throughout the 1970s, but managed to overcome some health issues to have a good career from the 1980s onwards.

May 2-3, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA Van Morrison/Appaloosa (Friday-Saturday)
At this time, Van Morrison was based in Boston, having just extracted himself from a difficult contract with Bang Records. Morrison had recorded and released his timeless classic Astral Weeks for Warner Brothers in late 1968, but the world wasn't yet ready for it. As far as I know, Morrison played with a trio at the time, with John Klingberg on bass, plus a flute/saxophone player (Colin Tilton or Jack Schroer, I think).

Appaloosa released an album on Columbia in 1969. Per the Badcat Records site:

Inspired by the booming mid-1960s folks scene, while still in their teens singer/guitarist John Parker Compton and high school buddy/violinist Robin Batteau were playing coffeehouses in their native Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Compton and Batteau eventually recruited bassist David Reiser and cello player Gene Rosov (both attending Harvard at the time) and began playing parties and local festivals.  A well-to-do patron offered to fly the group to New York to audition for major labels.  Certain they were going to major stars, in 1968 an 18 year old Compton and partner Batteau took up the offer, approaching a series of New York-based labels without success.  While waiting to talk to A&R staff at Columbia the pair started performing for office staff.  Perhaps nothing more than urban legend, but supposedly producer Al Kooper was walking by and signed them on the spot, recording demos with them that evening.

The May 16 Boston Globe Weekend feature included the detail that "The Ark has announced that every Thursday, females will be admitted free." Intriguing, but probably not a sign of a healthy club. 

May 15-17 NRBQ poster scan courtesy of

May 15-17, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: NRBQ/Burton Greene and The Sleepy Hollow Band
The New Rhythm and Blues Quintet (NRBQ) were from the Louisville, KY area and had just released their debut album on Columbia. At the time they were led by pianist/singer Terry Adams and bassist Joey Spampinato. Other members included lead singer Frank Gadler, guitarist Steve Ferguson and drummer Tom Staley.

Burton Greene and the Sleepy Hollow Band our unknown to me.

May 23-24, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA Cartoone/Black Pearl (Friday-Saturday)
Cartoone was a Scottish band that moved to London in 1968. They signed with Atlantic Records and recorded in album in 1968. Jimmy Page, then still in the Yardbirds and a part-time session musician, played lead guitar on a few tracks of their debut album. Atlantic released the album in January 1969.

Black Pearl was a San Francisco band, but they had Boston roots. In the mid-60s, they had been known as Moulty and The Barbarians. Moulty, the band's drummer, had lost his hand and played drums with a hook. Around 1967, the band relocated from Boston to San Francisco, without Moulty, and became Black Pearl. The band released their debut album on Atlantic in 1969. 

The May 23 Globe reported that  from May 26-28 (Monday to Wednesday), The Ark would present “Xenogenesis” a multi-media experience.

May 29-31, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Illinois Speed Press/Freddie King
The Illinois Speed Press were a band from Chicago who had relocated to Los Angeles after signing with Columbia. They featured guitarist Paul Cotton, later of Poco.Their debut album had been released in 1968.

Blues guitarist Freddie King was a legend, but he hadn't yet had the well-deserved revival that was to come a few years later, thanks to Leon Russell. His current album was probably Freddie King Is A Blues Master, produced by King Curtis for Cotillion Records.

June 6-7, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Junior Wells/Big Boy Crudup (Friday-Saturday)
Harmonica legend Junior Wells (1934-98) was another fine artist who was a few years shy of being recognized by white rock fans. He had played with Muddy Waters for many years. Thanks to the folk boom, many blues artists like Wells had been booked regularly in Boston, so they had a following in the city even though they weren't getting radio airplay.

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup (1905-74) had written songs like "That's Alright Mama." There were a series of royalty disputes, but Crudup never received money he was due. for writing one of Elvis Presley's biggest hits. Crudup was another musician benefiting from the Boston audience's sophisticated knowledge of the blues.

June 12-14, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Lothar and The Hand People/Sea Train (Thursday-Saturday)
Lothar and The Hand People had moved from Denver to Boston around 1967. "Lothar" was the assigned name of the band's Theremin, which gave the group a unique sound. I don't actually find them that interesting, in retrospect, but a band featuring a Theremin is so psychedelic 60s. In 1969, Lothar and The Hand People had released their second album on Capitol, Space Hymn.

Sea Train had a convoluted history, and they would end up moving to Boston, but at this time they were based in San Francisco. Drummer Roy Blumenfield and bassist Andy Kulberg had been in the Blues Project in the mid-60s. Both had ended up in San Francisco in 1968, and they re-formed the Blues Project with a few additional members. In 1969, they changed their name to Sea Train and released an album on A&M. It had a sort of baroque sound, almost progressive rock.

By the end of 1969, Sea Train had elided their name to Seatrain, and added Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals and Richard Greene on electric violin, among other membership changes. Just to confuse matters, although based in the Boston area, the band would spend the Winter in the warmer climate of the Bay Area. The exact timing of these personnel changes is unknown, but I think this iteration of Sea Train was the earlier one, with John Gregory on guitar and Don Kretmar on saxophone.

June 15, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Benefit AFTRA-SAG Social w/Fort Fudge Memorial Dump/Dry Ice/American Evolution/Jimmy Helms/The Four Freshmen/Changing Colours (Sunday)
The June 13 Globe reported that there would be a Benefit party on Sunday at The Ark, featuring mostly local bands. The presence of the Four Freshmen suggests that they weren't expecting the hippest crowd. The band Changing Colours was identified as a Cambridge band.

June 16-18 1969 MC5 poster scan courtesy of

June 16-18, 1969  The Ark, Boston, MA: MC5/Good Clean Fun/Cloud
Detroit's MC5 headlined a Monday-through-Wednesday booking. The MC5 were rightly legendary, and probably everyone who attended these shows formed a band or started a magazine, but it wouldn't have been very many people. Like the Velvet Underground, everything unique about the MC5 made them hugely unpopular, and wider exposure would not have changed that. The MC5 had an underground following in Michigan, and played regularly at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. They had released their debut Elektra album, Kick Out The Jams, in February 1969.

Good Clean Fun and Cloud are unknown to me.

June 20-21, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Kaleidoscope/Country Funk (Friday-Saturday)
June 23-25, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Canned Heat/Kaleidoscope
The Kaleidoscope were from Los Angeles, and they were decades ahead of their time. They pretty much invented World Music, and pretty much no one was ready for it. In June 1969, the band had released their third album on Epic, Incredible! Kaleidoscope. It lived up to its name. While the band was still fronted by guitarist/multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, multi-instrumentalist Solomon Feldthouse and organist/multi-instrumentalist Chester Crill, they had a new rhythm section. Paul Lagos was the drummer and Stuart Brotman played bass. Anyone who saw the band live was lucky. 

Country Funk was--as near as I can tell--a sort of psychedelic country band from the Boston area. They would release an album on Polydor in 1970.

Living The Blues, Canned Heat's 3rd album, released by Liberty Records in November 1968. It included the classic hit "Going Up The Country"

Canned Heat
, of course, were the kings of boogie music, out of Los Angeles. Formed initially in 1965 to keep jug band music alive, the band "went electric" the next year. Singer Bob Hite and guitarist/harmonicat Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson added lead guitarist Henry Vestine--replacing, incredibly enough, John Fahey--found a rhythm section and got to rockin'. Their debut on Liberty Records had been released in July '67, followed by their immortal Boogie With Canned Heat in January, 1968. Boogie had a hit single, too, with "The Road Again." At the time of their Monday-Wednesday booking at The Ark, Canned Heat's current album was their third, Living The Blues, which had been released in November, 1968. It included their classic single "Going Up The Country." The band's fourth album, Hallelujah, would come out shortly after these shows.

Oh Boy Records, out of Luxembourg, issued a CD in the early 90s of the vinyl bootleg of Canned Heat and Kaleidoscope jamming at The Ark in '69

Canned Heat at this time had their first classic lineup (although not quite original), with Hite and Alan Wilson on vocals, Vestine on lead, Wilson on guitar and harmonica, Larry "The Mole" Taylor on bass and Fito Parra on drums. Shortly after this, Vestine would quit the band after a backstage debut at Fillmore West, and Harvey Mandel would replace him for Woodstock. Canned Heat had been very successful, but due to an unfortunate bust in Denver in late 1967, they had sold their lucrative publishing rights for cash to make bail, and move they would come to regret. The Heat and the Kaleidoscope knew each other from LA, of course, and on the third night some members jammed (Bruno Ceriotti has some details: like many Canned Heat jams, it was 40 minutes of boogie). A poorly-recorded audience tape of the jam circulated as a bootleg lp called Jammin With Kaleidoscope (I paid 75 cents for it in Berkeley many years ago, arguably not worth it).

June 27-28, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: James Cotton/Freddie King (Friday-Saturday)
The blues returned to The Ark for the last weekend in June. The Boston Globe did not have a listing for The Ark on July 4 weekend. This tells us that whoever was playing was not interesting or popular enough to be listed in the Friday paper. 

The Mothers of Invention played what appeared to be the final live show at The Ark, on July 8, 1969. It was bootlegged, and mis-dated, and ultimately re-released by Zappa himself in the 90s to undermine the bootleggers (in his Beat The Boots series)

July 8, 1969 The Ark, Boston, MA: Mothers of Invention/Wild Things (Tuesday)
The last known live rock performance at The Ark was The Mothers Of Invention, appearing on a Tuesday night. Amazingly, this show was bootlegged, and ultimately released by Frank Zappa, in a conscious effort to undermine the bootleggers.  And of course Zappa completists will recall that one track from the Ark ("Baked Bean Boogie") was included on You Can't Do That On Stage Any More Volume 5. Wild Things are unknown to me.

The July 10, 1969 Boston Globe reported that Boston's two major rock venues would be merging over the weekend. The Tea Party would produce their final show at the Berkeley Street location on Friday, July 11. Appropriately enough, the Velvet Underground were the headliners. Starting Saturday, July 12, all the scheduled Tea Party shows would move to 15 Lansdowne Street. The first headliner was Larry Coryell.

The Globe article makes it seem like a merger of equals, but I doubt that was the case. The Tea Party team was in control of the new venue. Ray Rypien was chairman of the operating entity (Environmental Arts Inc), while Ark founder Charles Thibeau is Chairman of the Board. Donald Law Jr was the actual General Manager of the new club. The implication of the article is that the 17 stockholders of The Ark have an ownership in the merged Tea Party organization. The Globe also points out that Riepen is President and a major stockholder of WBCN-fm, ultimately a far more valuable proposition than a rock club.

The article makes clear that Boston does not have room for two rock-only venues. In sum, the Tea Party had the underground credibility and the connections to booking touring English rock bands, but the club was too small. The larger Ark had not really been a success, even though some good bands passed through.

Once the Boston Tea Party took over the 15 Landsdowne site, I am unaware if any of the other features of The Ark were in use. Were there still 3 floors, multiple environments, a discoteque and weeknight theater performances? I am unaware of any such things, but reflections on the Boston Tea Party are fairly narrow, so it's hard to say.