Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968 by Big Brother and The Holding Company with Janis Joplin

February 25, 2012

Since her death over 40 years ago at the age of 27, Janis Joplin has attained almost mythological proportions. Meanwhile her first band, Big Brother and The Holding Company, has slid under the radar.

The band formed in San Francisco during 1965 and a year later consisted of bassist Peter Albin, guitarist Sam Andrew, guitarist James Gurley, drummer David Getz, and new vocalist Janis Joplin. They were at heart a psychedelic rock band, but Joplin’s bluesy and powerful voice pushed them in a more traditional rock direction. It all added up to a brilliant fusion of sounds.

The band released two albums during Joplin’s stay with the group: their self-titled debut and one of the defining albums of the era, Cheap Thrills. While Joplin was the center piece of the album, the band was an important ingredient to their success. They had a more controlled sound in the studio, but on stage they were a creative and powerful improvisational group that could rock with the best bands of the late 1960s. Gurley passed away in 2009 but Albin, Andrew, Getz, plus accompanying musicians, are still on the road today.

Big Brother and The Holding Company pulled into the Carousel Ballroom during 1968 for two shows June 22-23. At the board that evening was the Grateful Dead’s soundman and chemical engineer deluxe Owsley “Bear” Stanley. He had the tape machine rolling and produced a surprisingly clear tape of the June 23 concert. That unavailable live recording will be issued by the Columbia/Legacy label under the title Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968 by Big Brother and The Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin.

The band was tight and at the top of their game. Joplin had been a member for two years and they had matured. The 13 tracks from the concert consisted of eight songs from their two albums plus five more original compositions. The final track was an encore of “Call On Me” from the June 22 concert. It is more interesting than essential but it allows one to compare it to the version contained during the June 23 performance.

Albin, Gurley, and Andrew tended to improvise and elongate the material but Joplin being the vocalist kept them from getting out of control. Gurley and Andrew are a sometimes underrated guitar duo and Andrews’ backing vocals enhanced those of Joplin’s lead. Albin and Getz formed a solid rhythm section that allowed the others to take off on their flights of fancy.

Two of the lesser known songs, “I Need A Man To Love” and “Catch Me Daddy” present the psychedelic era of free love well as Joplin’s emotional vocal presents the sexual and atavistic lyrics unapologetically. The music ebbs and flows as Joplin redefines the role of the female lead singer.

The four songs that end the album, their classic rendition of the old Emma Franklin soul song “Piece of My Heart,” “Coo Coo” which was issued as a stand-alone single, Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball & Chain,” which they turn into a psychedelic classic, and the gritty Joplin performance on “Down On Me” are 23 minutes of some of the best and intense rock music recorded on tape.

The track that best captures the original intent of the band was the near seven minute “Jam-I’m Mad” It gave the members room to stretch a little and move the basic melodies around and twist them out of shape.

Joplin would leave the band about two months after this concert and quickly become one of the superstars of rock music. Any new Janis Joplin music is a treat from a bygone era. This is doubly so when backed by Big Brother and The Holding Company. An essential listen for any fan of Joplin or the late 1960s psychedelic era.

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Greatest Hits by Janis Joplin

July 2, 2010

I am not the biggest fan of greatest hits albums as they remove classic tracks from their original context. This is especially true for album-oriented artists such as Janis Joplin who only had one song reach the American top forty. Her number one hit, “Me and Bobby McGee,” reached the top of the charts during January of 1971.

What Greatest Hits did do, though, upon its release during 1973 was introduce millions of music buyers to Janis Joplin’s music as it became (and remains) her most commercially successful album, selling seven-million copies in the United States alone.

While Greatest Hits only skims the surface of her legacy, it does present the highlights. The psychedelic rock of “Piece Of My Heart” and the hippy flavor of “Down On Me” capture her early career well. Her brilliant and tortured vocal on the old Broadway hit, “Summertime,” and the strong rock of “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” present her voice at its unique best.

Even after all these years I can’t get enough of “Ball and Chain.” This song, originally by Big Mama Thornton, explores love from several angles and is at the heart and soul of Janis Joplin as an artist.

The original vinyl release contained ten tracks. CD reissues expanded the release by adding “Mercedes Benz” and Joplin’s brilliant interpretation of the old Chantels’ doo-wop hit, “Maybe,” which she resurrected as a blues classic.

Who’s to say what directions Janis Joplin’s music would have traveled had she lived? During her short career she had explored hard rock, psychedelic rock, and even some blues. Her music has been released in many forms down through the years and a number of those releases have made Greatest Hits obsolete. Still, if you want a basic introduction to her music, this album is a good place to start.

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Pearl by Janis Joplin

July 2, 2010

Janis Joplin began recording Pearl on September 5, 1970. By October first the album was almost complete. Three days later she was dead at the age of 27.

She would only record four studio albums during the course of her short career; two with Big Brother and The Holding Company and two on her own. It remains one of the smallest catalogues of any member of The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Pearl was released posthumously on February 1, 1971, and quickly became a huge commercial success selling four million copies in the United States alone.

Joplin hired her own band for this release and to accompany her on the road. The Full Tilt Boogie Band, which was assembled by guitarist John Till, also included pianist Richard Bell, bassist Brad Campbell, organ player Ken Pearson, and drummer Clark Pierson.

The other important addition in the studio was producer Paul Rothchild of The Doors fame. He proved to be a perfect match for Joplin as he helped to assemble her most mature and smooth effort. The album would rank number 122 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

The two most memorable tracks are Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” which became a huge hit single, and her own “Mercedes Benz” which featured one of the better vocals of her career.

The albums contained a number of strong tracks. “Move Over,” “Cry Baby,” “A Woman Left Lonely,” and “Half Moon” find her making the type of music that appealed to her at the time.

“The most poignant track is “Buried Alive In The Blues,” which remained unfinished. Her vocal was never recorded and it is only the instrumental that was included.

One can only guess at what the musical future held for Janis Joplin. Had she lived Pearl would have been a bridge to somewhere but, because of her untimely death, it remains as her last will and testament. If you want to understand and appreciate Janis Joplin, this is an essential chapter in her life story.

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I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama by Janis Joplin

July 2, 2010

The Monterey Pop festival made the world take notice. Cheap Thrills made Janis Joplin a star, and Woodstock made her a mega star. She released I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama during September of 1969 and one platinum award album for sales later she stood atop the rock world.

Joplin’s studio output was minimal, so it is difficult to place this album in context since it is unknown what musical paths she would have traveled had she lived. Kozmic Blues does show that her musical vision was expanding beyond the sound of her former group, Big Brother and The Holding Company. Brass was added to a number of tracks as she explored rock, blues, and soul. Through it all her unique, tortured, and powerful voice provided the foundation for her music and appeal.

She attracted a stellar cast of musicians to support her solo debut. They included guitarists Sam Andrew and Mike Bloomfield, bassist Brad Campbell, keyboardists Richard Kermode and Gabriel Mekler, drummers Maury Baker and Lonnie Castille, and a brass section consisting of Terry Clements, Cornelius Flowers, and Luis Gasca.

The album blasts out of the gate with “Try (Just A Little Harder)” as it shows she is just fine on her own. She moves on to one of the most inspired song choices of her career. On “Maybe,” which was a big doo-wop hit for the Chantels during the late fifties, Janis gives a smooth performance that showed a new maturity.

The album is solid from beginning to end. Barry and Robin Gibb originally wrote “To Love Somebody” as a soul song. Their own hit version was light rock but Joplin’s interpretation was anything but. Her vocal captures the original intent as she turns it into a soulful tour de force. She reached back to 1935 for the Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers tune “Little Girl Blue.” Rodgers was still alive when this album was released and I have always wondered what he thought about his old Broadway show stopper being turned into a great blues song. “Work Me Lord,” at close to seven minutes, is a song she works until you think it can’t go on and then it does. It leaves you drained just listening to it.

I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama is a strong musical statement by Janis Joplin which has withstood the test of time. It remains a key ingredient in the career of one of the first legendary female rock

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Live At Winterland ’68 by Janis Joplin/Big Brothers and The Holding Company

June 22, 2010

Live At Winterland ’68 was not released until thirty years after the actual concert. It came as a breath of fresh air, as it captured Janis Joplin with Big Brother and The Holding Company at the height of their powers.

They took time off from recording their Cheap Thrills album to perform two days worth of concerts at the legendary Winterland Ballroom April 12-13, 1968. Five of the seven songs which would comprise that album are presented live here.

My only real complaint is performances from the two shows were combined to make one concert which gives it all a somewhat disjointed affair. I have always preferred to hear a concert as it was played mistakes and all.

The performances are raw, sloppy, loose, and powerful which probably sums up the style of both Janis Joplin and Big Brother. The twin guitars of Sam Andrew and James Gurley combined to make one of the best duos of the day and provided the perfect foundation for Joplin to churn out some of the best blues/rock vocals in history.

It is the Cheap Thrills material which shines the brightest which should not be a surprise as it is some of the strongest in their catalogue and of the period. “Summertime” is emotional as Joplin wails over the guitars. “Ball and Chain” is late sixties rock at its very best and this version is similar to the one which would appear on Cheap Thrills which is very good indeed. Joplin leaves you exhausted by the time she finishes “Piece Of My Heart.” Sam Andrew produces an excellent guitar solo on “I Need A Man To Love.” It must have been quite an experience hearing these songs before they were officially released.

I am also attracted to the extended version of “Light Is Faster Than Sound” as it gives the group a chance to jam and prove they were an excellent live band.

Live At Winterl and ’68 enables the listener to travel back in time and spend an evening with the great Janis Joplin. It is an album with a great cover, great liner notes, and above all great music.

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Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and The Holding Company

June 22, 2010

Big Brother and The Holding Company’s debut album put the group on the musical map and their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival during the summer ’67 was Janis Joplin’s coming-out party. The stage was set for her to become one of the biggest stars in American music.

Cheap Thrills was released August 12, 1968 and would be the number one album in the United States for eight weeks. By year’s end it had sold over a million copies.

This would be Joplin’s second and last album with the group as she would leave in December. In many ways they were the perfect backing band for her as they were raw and loose, intense and at times sloppy, which fit her style well.

Of special note is the cover artwork which was drawn by cartoonist Robert Crumb. It would become recognized as one of the best jackets in rock history. Obviously, the CD insert does not do the cover justice so find an old vinyl copy to see it in all its original glory.

Cheap Thrills was a psychedelic, blues/rock masterpiece. The twin guitars of James Gurley and Sam Andrew set the tone and Janis Joplin did the rest.

While their first album had no track that approached three minutes in length, this one has no song less than four minutes. This extended length would fit the band better as these songs would become concert staples that allowed the band to improvise and stretch out a bit.

Side One contains three classic Joplin performances. The old Gershwin popular tune, “Summertime,” is given a unique and almost painful vocal. The guitar solo on this one is also worth the price of admission. “Piece Of My Heart” is Joplin at her rocking best and it remains a classic song from the late sixties. While it may not be as well known as the precious two, “I Need A Man To Love” has a bluesy vocal refrain by Joplin which ranks among her best work.

Side Two is dominated by the nine-minute “Ball and Chain,” which I played to death back in the day. If you want an introduction to late-sixties psychedelic rock this is a good place to start. The other song of note here is the haunting “Oh, Sweet Mary.”

A classic album to be savored and enjoyed, Cheap Thrills helped define an era in American music and remains an essential listen over four decades on.

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Big Brother and The Holding Company by Big Brother and The Holding Company

June 22, 2010

Big Brother & The Holding Company are still on the road, but no matter what they may do or where they go or what they play or create, they will always be remembered as the launching pad for Janis Joplin.

She almost did not join the group as she had considered becoming a part of the 13th Floor Elevators in her native Texas. The thought of her and Roky Erickson even in the same vicinity boggles the mind.

Their debut album, Big Brother And The Holding Company, released during September of 1967, was recorded December 14-16 of 1966. During that recording process Joplin was just a member of the band. It was their incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival during the summer of 1967 that pushed her to the forefront of the group and introduced her to the music buying public. Her popularity would continue to build until it reached mythic proportions after her death.

Their debut album was a more subdued affair than the one which would follow a year later, yet it remained grounded in the San Francisco sound of the day. It was raw and driven by the intensity of the music. Guitarists James Gurley and Sam Andrew, drummer David Getz, and bassist Peter Albin were all important cogs in the Big Brother music machine. It is an album of short psychedelic rock/folk sound bytes as the longest of the twelve tracks clocks in at just over two and a half minutes.

Four decades after its initial release, it is the Joplin dominated tracks which shine. Her arrangement and vocals on the traditional “Down On Me” has become one of the staples in her catalogue. Her vocals are double-tracked on the first song, “Bye, Bye Baby,” which gives them a unique effect. She wrote three of the songs and “Intruder,” “The Last Time,” and “Women Is Losers,” clearly show she was an adept composer even this early in her career.

Joplin’s voice is clearer on many of these performances as it had not been worn down by hard singing and a lot of hard living. Also of note is the guitar playing of James Gurley, who is one of the underrated and many times forgotten musicians of the psychedelic era.

Big Brother And The Holding Company was a unique stop for the group and for Janis Joplin, but it set a firm foundation for her future. The album not only has held up well but remains historically important as the studio training ground for one of rock’s legendary singers.

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The Woodstock Experience by Janis Joplin

August 13, 2009

When Janis Joplin took the stage on August 17, 1969 at The Woodstock Music and Art Fair she was already a star of the first magnitude. Her work as the lead singer of Big Brother and The Holding Company had brought her acclaim as one of the leading female rock vocalists in the world. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival had been her coming out party.

1969 found her having left Big Brother and performing with her new back-up group, The Kozmic Blues Band. This was a funky-style outfit complete with a brass section whose playing was similar to the Stax rhythm and blues sound coming out of Memphis.

The Woodstock Experience has gathered her complete ten-song Woodstock set and combined it with her I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Mama album which was released shortly after her performance.

Her live performance here is the gem. She did not appear in the original Woodstock movie or soundtrack and only one of her songs was included on the 25th and 40th anniversary editions. This is the third album I have heard from this series and it has the best sound by far. In fact I think it is one of the better sounding performances to have been recorded at the festival. It is crisp and clear which is amazing given the recording equipment of the time and the vastness of the outside arena which tended to wash out the sound.

All was not well with Janis, however, as drugs and alcohol had begun to affect her health. She also had to wait over ten hours to take the stage. Her monologues between songs are sometimes rambling and she has trouble with some of the notes on “Work Me Lord.” She just manages to keep it together and get through the song. Even forty years after the fact I found myself rooting for her to make it.

Her Kozmic Blues Band period was not my favorite. Sometimes she lets the band do too much which takes the focus away from her. She is almost a supporting player on the first two songs, “Raise Your Hand” and “As Good As You’ve Been To This World.” I’m more comfortable with a rock ‘n’ roll Joplin than a funky Joplin.

She finally hits her stride with a cover of the Bee Gees tune, “To Love Somebody,” proving why she was one of the best vocalists in the world. Other highlights include “Summertime,” “Piece Of My Heart,” and “Ball and Chain.” All in all it it’s a somewhat uneven performance though on a number of the tracks her brilliance shines through.

I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama would be her only studio album with the group as they would part ways in 1969. While no Janis Joplin album can ever be considered average, she does struggle in places trying to re-create herself as a rhythm and blues singer. I much prefer her Cheap Thrills album with Big Brother and The Holding Company or her posthumous Pearl. Still, this album fits the time period and is a good companion to her performance.

Close to fourteen months after her Woodstock performance Janis Joplin would be dead. Rolling Stone ultimately ranked her as the 46th greatest artist of all time and 28th greatest singer.

The Woodstock Experience resurrects a historic performance by one of the queens of American rock music.