Big Brother and the Holding Company return to Suffolk Theater on March 17. It’ll be a great chance to reconnect with the energy and power of mid-’60s San Francisco acid rock. You’re going to want to get your freak on!
Because this music was meant for freaking out, the product of a very particular place and time, “San Francisco, from the Gold Rush on, was always a city that was very tolerant,” says Dave Getz, the drummer for Big Brother and an original member of the band. “The Beat Generation had settled here in the late ’50s, which was part of the attraction of San Francisco for me.” Getz relocated to San Francisco from New York, attracted by the “bohemian culture and freakiness,” not to mention the cheap rent of the time.
Formed in San Francisco in the fall of 1965, Big Brother took part in a burgeoning counter-culture scene that was just starting to spread beyond the Bay Area. As the scene took off, San Francisco bands started to reinvent the very idea of the rock concert.
“There were a lot of venues where we would play dance concerts,” recalls Getz. “It wasn’t like a sit-down concert, but a different kind of consciousness. Everybody could come and express themselves.” Getz remembers the first time he went to one of these dance concerts—he had yet to join Big Brother at the time—and being astonished to see all of the wildness on display. “People dressed up in incredible costumes, dancing freely. I thought, ‘Here are all these people like me.’ It brought people together to experience an energy, connect to a vibe.” Getz acknowledges that some participants’ experiences may have been enhanced by certain chemical substances—LSD was still legal at the time—but emphasizes the spiritual dimension of the events. “It was like why some people go to church,” he says.
In time the white blues and soul singing phenom Janis Joplin would come up from Texas to join Big Brother and the Holding Company for a while and move the band in a more disciplined direction, resulting in the smash hit “Piece of My Heart.” But in the beginning Big Brother moved through the San Francisco dance concert scene as a force of nature. “We would just play,” says Getz. “Create the energy, more like punk rock. We played everything very fast, and as loud as we could get it, like a whirlwind. I would break sticks, drum heads. We were the punk band of the psychedelic era.”
In Getz’s view, this kind of music of the San Francisco bands was a catalyst for the counter-culture, providing the necessary energy for the wild abandon that became more and more a part of the experience of popular music as the ’60s went on, and which also characterized some of the anti-war protests of the later ’60s.
Big Brother and the Holding Company performed, with Janis Joplin singing, at the game-changing Monterey Pop Festival, which led to a major-label record deal. The album that resulted, Cheap Thrills, went to number 1 and is widely considered a classic, and yielded the band’s only Top 20 hit with “Piece of My Heart.” But Joplin soon left Big Brother over creative differences, and the band’s activities became sporadic.
But they got back together in 1987 and are on the road now, and Getz is looking forward to the show at Suffolk. “It’s a great venue,” he says. “The band works really well in old refurbished theaters.” Getz notes that in 1968 Big Brother opened the Fillmore East, a legendary New York rock venue that itself was housed in a refurbished theater. And now that Suffolk Theater has a new sound system, Big Brother will have everything they need to summon that San Francisco energy. And all you need to do is freak out!
See—and hear—Big Brother and the Holding Company at Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead, on Sunday, March 17. Doors, dining and bar open at 6 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. concert. For tickets and more information visit suffolktheater.com or call 631-727-4343.