|The cover to Jimi Hendrix's album Electric Ladyland, released in October 1968|
The Boston Garden Arena was at 150 Causeway Street, on top of the North Station MBTA stop. The arena was built in 1928, and it was originally named The Boston Madison Square Garden, but the name was shortened over time, and in fact many people colloquially called the arena 'Boston Gardens.' The arena had a basketball capacity of 14,895, and although the concert setup was different, the capacity was probably pretty close. Boston Garden was the city's largest and best known arena, and it was the primary home to both the NHL's Boston Bruins and the NBA's Boston Celtics, as well as other major events. Until rock music got to be very big business at the end of the 1960s, there were very few rock acts big enough to play a concert at Boston Garden.
The Beatles had played Boston Garden on September 12, 1964, and the Rolling Stones had headlined there on November 5, 1965. James Brown had headlined a famous concert at the Boston Garden on April 5, 1968 the night after Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated (April 4). After King was shot, there was rioting or the threat of rioting in many cities, including parts of Boston. Many nighttime events were canceled all over the United States. With some negotiation between Brown and the Mayor of Boston, not only did Brown put on his show, but WGBH-TV in Boston broadcast the entire event live. Since Brown was the biggest live act in the R&B universe at the time, the unprecedented live broadcast is generally credited with keeping everyone in Boston at home and the streets relatively safe from rioting. Brown was rightly praised for this, and while the city of Boston made up some of his losses, Brown took a financial hit in order to keep the peace.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968
In general, only the largest acts could play a venue the size of Boston Garden. Up until 1968, to qualify as a big act, an artist had to have a string of memorable hit singles on AM radio, preferably #1 hits. Great as the Beatles, Stones and James Brown were, it's important to remember they were popular with a mass audience in the formal sense of having radio hits that everyone recognized (and indeed, still recognizes today). Cream had changed that equation, however, by capitalizing on FM radio to play album tracks and presenting concerts of unparalleled musical virtuosity, like jazz musicians. Cream had become huge with only some relatively modest AM hits, but their albums were staples of the new free-form FM rock radio stations. Rock fans went to see Cream for the same reason they went to see John Coltrane of Miles Davis, in that the concert would provide a unique moment of high artistry that would never be repeated.
In November of 1968, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was probably the top live rock act in the United States. Cream had an equal status, but they had just finished their "Farewell Tour" and played their final concert in London on October 26. Cream, in fact, had been scheduled to play Boston Garden in October of '68 as part of the Farewell Tour, but for various reasons the show had been canceled and replaced with a show in Rhode Island (I presume that fall dates had to be scheduled in between hockey and basketball games, so re-scheduling would have been hard).
The timing of the booking was propitious for the promoters. At the end of October, Hendrix had released his third album, the epic double lp Electric Ladyland. After Hendrix's first two exceptional albums (Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love), topping them was a tall order, but Hendrix had made an album for the ages. Electric Ladyland shot to the top of the charts, bolstered by heavy airplay on every FM station. Boston had a hugely popular FM rock station (WBCN) and I don't doubt that Electric Ladyland got plenty of play. Thus when Hendrix played Boston, he would have been a very big deal indeed, so it was appropriate that he played the biggest venue.
Hendrix's manager, Mike Jeffery, has had a reputation of being a shady operator, and even while Hendrix was alive there were complicated accusations of financial mismanagement and strange decision making. Nonetheless, Jeffery had a very shrewd appreciation of how valuable a commodity the Jimi Hendrix Experience really was as a concert attraction. The Hendrix show at Boston Garden had to have been planned at least three months in advance, and scheduled around NHL and NBA games, so it may have been planned even earlier. Hendrix was already extremely popular, of course, but Jefferey clearly had a sharp eye on how big major rock acts were really going to be. In the 1970s, most 'major' rock acts played the local NBA arena in big cities, but this was still new territory. Here was Jimi Hendrix with a new album, no hit single, and indeed no real chance of a Beatles-style hit single, already booked for the biggest arena in one of the nation's hippest rock markets, and it turned out to be just what the audience wanted.
November 16, 1968: Jimi Hendrix Experience/The McCoys/Cat Mother @ Boston Garden
A bootleg tape circulates of some of Hendrix's set. The surviving tape includes six songs and seems to be about an hour. This was probably most if not just about all of Hendrix's set. Almost no acts except the Grateful Dead played more than an hour. At the Fillmore West, headline bands played two one hour long sets, but they were separated by other acts. At a big arena, with unions and city curfews and other obligations, concerts rarely ran longer than a few hours. Hendrix liked to jam and hang out, but that was for nightclubs, not a big NBA arena.
Hendrix was still playing with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the trio he had begun with when he started playing in London in late 1966, with Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. The setlist that circulates is
- "Spanish Castle Magic"
- "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"
- "Red House"
- "Foxy Lady"
- "Purple Haze"
Jefferey and Hendrix's promoters were also shrewd about the value of the opening act. Most Fillmore style concerts in the late 60s featured multiple acts, often of almost equal stature. The Byrds would play with Mike Bloomfield, or Country Joe and The Fish would play with the Grateful Dead, or Procol Harum would play with Pink Floyd. Hendrix stood alone, however, and the opening acts at Boston Garden were there to allow people to file in and perhaps buy some popcorn. Both of the opening acts were pretty good, as it happened, but they weren't there to sell tickets. This too became common in the 1970s, where the opening act was a trivial afterthought, but Jeffery saw clearly that the allure of Hendrix was so all-powerful that spending money expensive opening acts would merely cut into his profit. If Hendrix was Hendrix, no one would remember the opening acts anyway.
The McCoys were from Indiana, and had had a #1 hit with "Hang On Sloopy" in 1965, as well as some other hits. By 1968, however, "Hang On Sloopy" was already a dumb, unhip oldie. The McCoys tried to remake themselves playing heavy psychedelic blues. They changed record labels, and in 1968 they put out a pretty good 'serious' rock album, Infinite McCoys. The McCoys had plenty of talent, too. Guitarist Rick Zehringer would become much better known in the 1970s as Rick Derringer ("Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo"), but in 1968 their name was still associated with the bubblegum pop of "Hang On Sloopy." The McCoys had become the house band at a Manhattan nightclub called The Scene, where Hendrix liked to hang out. Although the McCoys were actually a good choice to open for the Experience, there was probably a personal favor of some kind involved in the booking.
The McCoys released another psychedelic album, Human Ball, in 1969, but unable to overcome their past, the band broke up. Three of the McCoys (Derringer, his brother, drummer Rick Zehringer and bassist Randy Jo Hobbs) joined Johnny Winter's new group, Johnny Winter And.
|The Street Giveth and The Street Taketh Away, the 1969 debut album for Cat Mother And The All Night Newsboys|
Cat Mother was a New York band. Their "full name," if bands have such a thing, was Cat Mother And The All-Night Newsboys. They had formed in New York in 1967. The vocalists, Roy Michaels and Bob Smith, were both former Greenwich Village folkies. Cat Mother played what would now be called "Roots Music" or "Americana," but no such term existed at the time. Because some members of Cat Mother played fiddle and banjo on some songs, Cat Mother has been not unfairly identified as a country rock group. However, the band had a rootsier sound than California bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Cat Mother had played around New York City in 1967 and '68 and become friendly with Hendrix. Cat Mother ended up being managed by Mike Jeffery, and Hendrix produced their first album, The Street Giveth And The Street Taketh Away. Cat Mother had a modest AM hit with a rock medley called "Good Old Rock and Roll," and a more representative song that got played alot on FM (at least in my day) called "Strike A Match And Light Another," a folksy song about smoking weed.
Mike Jeffery was also one of the first managers to recognize that a huge headliner created a captive audience for the opening act, so he was one of the first to insist that his own bands open the shows for his headliners. That is why 1968 concerts by the likes of Hendrix and Eric Burdon usually featured Jeffery-managed bands like Soft Machine, Eire Apparent and Cat Mother. Such practices became common in the 1970s, but Mike Jeffery was one of the first to exploit it. In fact, Soft Machine, Eire Apparent and Cat Mother were all good groups, particularly Soft Machine, but Jefferey's vertical approach to management was why Hendrix rarely had a wide variety of openers. Jefferey knew that any Hendrix show was a sellout anyway.
Cat Mother was very uncomfortable with Mike Jeffery's management practices, however, and split with him at the end of 1970. As a result, they moved from New York City to coastal Mendocino, CA, prior to their second album (Albion Doo-Wah). The band put out a few more albums, but faded away by the mid-70s. Many of the members apparently stayed in Mendocino.