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.
Article first published as Music Review: Big Brother and The Holding Company with Janis Joplin – Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968 on Blogcritics.