Big Brother and the Holding Company—guitarist Sam Andrew, bassist Peter Albin and drummer Dave Getz, the group’s remaining three original members (pioneering psychedelic guitarist James Gurley passed away in 2009)—remain active, both together and with their own bands in the Bay Area. In a rare east coast appearance, the group—minus Getz—played four shows in and around New York City, with the highlight being the first of the four, at the splendid new Cutting Room on E. 32nd St. From late 1999 through January 2009, in a west side location, the venue (which was then and still is co-owned by actor Chris Noth and his partner, Steve Walter, a Berklee College of Music grad) was one of the premier showcase rooms in the city, before closing down. Earlier this year it returned to life at the present east side location, in far more comfortable environs than its original incarnation offered.
But about Big Brother. They arrived with drummer Jim Wall filling in for Getz, who did not make the trip east, and their long-time guitarist Brian Nieves, a dynamic but also subtle picker, rounding out the instrumental lineup. Since Janis Joplin left in 1969, the band has carried on with a number of fine vocalists (and, as Albin and Andrew will admit, a few that left a bit to be desired). For these gigs they brought in their former lead vocalist from 2000-2003, Lisa Mills, who has since gone on to a productive solo career, working mostly the southern precincts, and is just now gaining traction in the New York City area. Mills is one of the most versatile vocalists BBHC has ever employed. Her big, strong mezzo-soprano can roar with style over the band’s thunder but she also has a tender, nuanced style suitable for soft ballads, torch numbers and the languid beauty of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” to which she lends a silky sultriness beyond most singers’, including Joplin’s, reach. With Mills in the lead, Big Brother was a revitalized unit—as solid as Andrew was at the Cutting Room, he was even stronger and more adventurous a couple of days later at the Dugout Pub on Staten Island (he is, after all, a classically trained musician), and at both shows the give-and-take between he and Nieves, and both guitarist’s solo turns, were often electrifying. Albin, always one of the most underrated bassists, was right there and was also an engaging host, his between-songs patter full of lively anecdotes from the band’s rich history.
Traveling with BBHC on the four-date New York mini-tour (and doing an opening monologue about his life and times) was Sam Cutler, a true and legendary character out of the pages of rock ‘n’ roll’s colorful 1960s-early ‘70s history, during which time he not only befriended most of his native England’s most important musicians, but also served as tour manager for the Rolling Stones’ infamous 1969 tour that ended with the disaster at Altamont. After that Cutler when to work as tour manger for the Grateful Dead, eventually becoming the band’s co-manager, and finally its agent. Following the Altamont debacle, Cutler was demonized in the press as being responsible for basically everything that went wrong, from thinking up the idea in the first place (he didn’t—the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane did), to hiring the Hell’s Angel as “security” (the Dead again), to…well, just about all the mayhem that occurred at the speedway on that dark day, the allegations made against him stopping just short of accusing him of putting the knife in the hand of the Angel who stabbed to death a gun wielding Meredith Hunter as the Stones played “Under My Thumb.”
‘Down on Me,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company with Lisa Mills at the Cutting Room, NYC, May 30, 2013. All Big Brother & the Holding Company with Lisa Mills videos posted at YouTube and on this page are by Scott Gibson.
‘Piece of My Heart,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Cutting Room, NYC, May 30, 2013. Sam Cutler: ‘Lisa Mills sings like the Sirens of Titan who lured unsuspecting sailors to their doom–she’s simply fabulous…’
Over the years some of the confusion over who was responsible for what at Altamont has been cleared up, but Cutler has nonetheless remained the event’s éminence grise. Now 70, Cutler has set the record straight—or finally told his side of the story—in a compelling new memoir, You Can’t Always Get What You Want: My Life with the Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and Other Wonderful Reprobates (ECW Press), which is dominated by the unbelievable saga of Altamont, from the first rumblings of its happening to its tangled aftermath, when the Stones hustled back to Europe and left Cutler holding the bag for it and them. Apart from its colorful, insightful portraits of the early British Invasion bands (and the formative days—not years—days—of Pink Floyd and its enigmatic, troubled genius, Syd Barrett), the detailed account of Altamont from genesis to the Stones’ exodus to Cutler’s resurrection from its ashes, is nothing less than riveting—finally, what feels and reads like the unvarnished truth about the self-interested, money grubbing cast of characters who doomed what was intended to be a west coast Woodstock to be a day of infamy in rock ‘n’ roll annals, and for many the death knell of the ‘60s. Even if you take Cutler’s account with a grain of salt, as his side of the story, it still has the ring of truth about it, especially for anyone familiar with the outsized personalities jockeying for power behind the scenes.
‘Turtle Blues,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company with Lisa Mills at the Cutting Room, May 30, 2013
But the book is not the only writing Cutler has done. He’s been posting diary-like entries on Facebook for some time, chronicling his travels and detailing some colorful exploits along the way. So when you read above about BBHC being a “revitalized” band, don’t take our word for it. Here’s what Sam had to say on Facebook:
I had forgotten that “space” one occupies whilst on tour–it’s difficult to describe! It’s a kind of ontological-exhaustion-leavened-by-adrenaline that takes over the consciousness and sees one ‘stumbling’ from conversations-with-strangers to more conversations-with-strangers in a seemingly unending merry-go-round of greetings and departures with the whole kit and caboodle set amidst people’s rampant nostalgia for days gone by. Sometimes I felt like a dumb blonde in a hostess bar in Tokyo who is paid to look interested as Japanese businessmen get drunk and practice their English! I smiled, I recounted little anecdotes, I listened to tales of children and divorces, swerved around several propositions of dubious attractions ‘out the back,’ had my photo taken with endless different people, and waded thru the ‘meet and greets’ feeling like an old sailor shanghaied on a rust bucket of a ship somewhere in the tropics!
‘Summertime,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company with Lisa Mills at the Cutting Room, NYC, May 30, 2013
I am on a four day “mini tour” with BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY and there’s one more to go. We started at The Cutting Room in Manhattan, a purpose-built supper club designed for food and music with a wonderful bar and the most extraordinary sound man who barked orders with the surety of a Mongol general. For the first time in my life I listened to a sound engineer demand ABSOLUTE SILENCE during a sound check when there were perhaps three people in the room (other than the band) having a conversation! Delusions of grandeur, a bad night before coming to the “office,” ears that were so sensitive they should be leased by the military to eavesdrop on the enemy’s communications? It’s hard to tell WHAT his problem was, but it IS extraordinary how one remembers an asshole before one remembers the more pleasant things about a gig.
‘Women is Losers,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company with Lisa Mills at the Cutting Room, NYC, May 30, 2013
Big Brother were great! At the sound-check-with-the-general I got to hear the voice of the woman who was going to be singing those songs made so famous by Janis Joplin. She nailed my ears to the wall! Lisa Mills has a nuclear power station for vocal chords that generate enough power to light up a city! I was amazed and delighted for I have heard Janis’s songs sung in many a low dive and being ‘murdered’ by singers who haven’t got a third of her talent–here was a lady who rose to the demands of the songs with style and panache and I fell in love with her on the spot. What a voice! The years rolled away–I could see it on Sam Andrew’s and Peter Albin’s faces as they tore through “Down on Me” and Lisa brought forth that old magic belting out the song with overpowering authority and vocal strength. Wow! I couldn’t wait for the gig proper to begin–this was going to be fun!
‘Ball and Chain,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company with Lisa Mills at the Cutting Room, NYC, May 30, 2013
The first night in Manhattan was not well attended. A pity, and a million reasons were proffered for the lack of punters. I would have not been surprised if I had been told that there were not enough people in New York City to support a gig–some of the excuses I was given were just as ludicrous! Baby, if you can’t put a hundred bums-on-seats in the middle of Manhattan then in my book you ain’t much of a promoter! But never mind; the venue was a delight and Steve Walter, who runs the place, was as charming a host as one could wish for. There was even a couple of Aussie-Shielas working behind the bar and the lady hostess who greeted people at the front door was as beautiful a woman as any I have ever seen–I swooned in front of her and flirted outrageously (as you do!) and generally felt right at home! LOL Can’t say I remember much about the gig, my mind was on other things, but I recall the impact that Lisa Mills and the band had on the tiny audience–they blew people away!
‘I Need a Man to Love,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company with Lisa Mills at the Cutting Room, May 30, 2013
‘Call on Me,’ Big Brother and the Holding Company with Lisa Mills at the Cutting Room, May 30, 2013
(following an account of BBHC shows in Amityville, LI, and in New Jersey, Cutler concludes by sizing up the set at the Dugout Pub on Staten Island)
The sun is shining–another parking lot awaits! A dreary bar, a few people, some music, lots of hurry up and wait. The decision to be a writer instead of a rock ‘n roller now seems to have been so wise! If I had stayed all those years in the music business I would have surely died on the job, with my spirit crushed beneath the tedium of yet another show in an anonymous location–I really don’t know how the musicians can stand it! But, stand it they do, and Big Brother and the Holding Company have been a joyful revelation. Lisa Mills sings like the Sirens of Titan who lured unsuspecting sailors to their doom–she’s simply fabulous and I “drowned” each time I heard her sing. Catch her if you can.
Visit Sam Cutler on Facebook
For more information on Big Brother and the Holding Company, along with merchandise and music, visit the band’s website.
For all things Lisa Mills, visit her website.