By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Late 1960’s occult-obsessed psychedelic rockers Coven come to San Francisco to play a rare show at the Great American Music Hall Saturday, sharing the stage with local metal heroes Hammers of Misfortune.
Fronted by striking lead singer Esther “Jinx” Dawson, the group had already built up a regional following around it’s home base of Chicago since starting 1967, playing shows with the Yardbirds, a fledgling version of the Alice Cooper band and Vanilla Fudge, They developing a unique take on psychedelic rock with a decidedly dark lyrics and a musical approach sounded like an evil, alternate universe version of the Jefferson Airplane Their theatrical stage show and growing popularity led to a contract with Mercury Records, who put out the band’s dark debut album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls in 1969.
That album was not a major hit, but it was notable in it’s focus on evil subject matter far beyond the Rolling Stones anthem “Sympathy for the Devil.” Songs included the sinister opening track “Black Sabbath” — a year before the British band of the same name would release its first record — the macabre “The White Witch of Rose Hall,” “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” and the 13-minute “Satanic Mass” that featured Latin incantations, chanting and Satanic prayers. The album’s cover imagery was equally blasphemous, featuring an inner gatefold photo of Dawson laid naked on an altar with strategically placed goblet and skull covering her private parts.
The release earned Coven some notoriety — Lester Bangs even referred to Black Sabbath as “England’s answer to Coven” in his review of their 1970 debut — the publicity turned bad when an article in Esquire magazine about cult leader Charles Manson’s interest in the occult mentioned Coven and their album (a photo of Manson holding the album didn’t help). Mercury Records wound up pulling the album from record store shelves, inadvertently making it a huge collector’s item that sells for hundreds of dollars.
Coven would bounce back when Dawson sang a song on the soundtrack to the underground hit movie Billy Jack, “One Tin Soldier.” A couple more albums with fall less explicit occult fascination followed — the self-titled Coven in 1971 and Blood on the Snow three years later — but the group would eventually split up. Dawson moved into fashion, designing clothes for celebrities including Cher, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and Barbra Streisand into the ’80s, a time when the unholy music of metal bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate and Slayer pushed the Satanic theatrics that Coven pioneered over a decade earlier.
Dawson would return to music in 1990, appearing in the unreleased horror movie Heaven Can Help as the singer in a band and recording new material with a new version of Coven. But it wouldn’t be until the 2000s that a true Coven revival began. After years of bootleg versions of their startling debut, Dawson founded her own Nevoc label and reissued Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls as well as a collection of unreleased Coven recordings Metal Goth Queen: Out of the Vault 1976–2007.
Since then Dawson has been playing and recording with a new version of the band, releasing their first album of new material — Jinx — in 2013 and performing at the Roadburn Festival last year. The singer brings the band to the Great American Music Hall Saturday, playing with local favorites Hammers of Misfortune.
The brainchild of guitarist John Cobbett (who had played with punk band Osgood Slaughter and metal groups Slough Feg and Ludicra among others), the ambitious outfit got its start under the moniker Unholy Cadaver before taking the new name from a song on its original demo. Hammers made a splash with the band’s acclaimed, concept-driven debut The Bastard in 2001. Partnered with longtime drummer Chewy Marzolo and Slough Feg leader Michael Scalzi, Cobbett and company produced a sting of increasingly complex concept albums The August Engine (which was actually an pared version of a much longer, more intricate piece) and The Locust Years, which focused an unblinking eye on the madness of George W. Bush’s war against Iraq after 9-11.
Though Scalzi would depart after that 2006 album to concentrate on his own band, Cobbett has soldiered on with several different line-ups of the progressive-metal crew featuring keyboard player Sigrid Schie (formerly of gothic metal group Amber Asylum and Cobbett’s partner in another metal project, Vhol) and a rotation of vocalists. The current version featuring Death Angel drummer Will Carroll and singer/guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf (of underground metal bands Vastum and Cardinal Wyrm) plays songs from Hammers’ most recent politically charged effort Dead Revolution and classics from throughout the band’s career.
Coven with Hammers of Misfortune
Saturday, February 17, 9 p.m. $31
Great American Music Hall