Maybe this album, finally, will put to rest the wrong-headed notion that Janis Joplin was simply a blues-belting imitator, instead of one of rock music’s most interesting — albeit short-lived — voices. Oh, and also the idea that Big Brother was too crude to hold their own in the shadow of her shooting-star career.
Live at the Carousel Ballroom, a largely unheard new concert recording from just before Joplin went solo, shows that the Port Arthur, Texas, native had plenty of Bessie Smith in her. Joplin could unleash an almost overwhelming force of will in song, echoing all of the things we associate with a great blues — a crushing sense of lost love, of damaging circumstance, of struggle. (For that, head straight to “Summertime,” her volcanically confessional “Piece of My Heart” and the set-closing “Ball and Chain.”) But also, and this is what put her in league with Ray Charles as a vocalist, you hear some Kitty Wells — a shattering, home-grown vulnerability.
More interesting, really, is how Big Brother and the Holding Company make their case, even while Joplin stomps and sways and cries and moans, as one of the lost treasures of the 1960s San Francisco hippie-rock scene. Together, they were an almost unclassifiable delight — in particular, versus the rather staid blues rock of her subsequent collaborators the Kozmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie, which often stripped away the oddball wrinkles that gave Joplin her galvanic star power.
I don’t expect that to be the widespread takeaway from Legacy Recordings’ Live at the Carousel Ballroom. After all, her musical life has not been so completely reimagined as, say, that of Jimi Hendrix (who died within weeks of Joplin) or Jim Morrison. This album represents — outside of a couple of tracks, which appeared in a rawer form on 1972’s Janis Joplin In Concert — some of her first new music in decades. Still, it’s an easy mistake to focus on burnishing the Joplin myth to the exclusion of the band surrounding her. Keep digging, and there is just as much to say about the concurrent legacy of Big Brother, which featured Sam Andrew and James Gurley on guitars, Peter Albin on bass and Dave Getz on drums.
The show opens amidst the shambling growl of Andrew’s “Combination Of The Two,” immediately setting the stage for a series of illuminative moments: There’s the gnarled, twin-guitar boogie of “Mad Man Blues”; the wow-man bliss of “Light is Faster than Sound”; the reeling, almost out of control grit of “Catch Me Daddy”; and the sweet magic of their thrumming anthem “Coo Coo.” Big Brother and the Holding Company may have played it fast and loose, in the style of the day, but they had the goods. Becoming reacquainted with their rumbling, far-out complexities is one of this project’s lasting joys.
In the years since Joplin died of a heroin overdose at 27 on October 4, 1970, her bold style — in dress, in singing, and certainly in her sexuality — have become part of the language of rock and pop performance. Yet she remains something of an enigma, more a bell-bottomed curio than flesh and blood, and so often mischaracterized. Live at the Carousel Ballroom reanimates Joplin, in every sense of the word. You hear the things that made her who she was, and who she might have been, all over again. But you also hear, and perhaps more clearly still, the Faustian bargain that Janis Joplin’s presence ended up being for Big Brother and the Holding Company.
They died, it seems, with Joplin — and that’s its own small tragedy, too.
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‘Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968’ is being released this week to honor legendary sound engineer Augustus Owsley Stanley III, better known as “Bear,” who died in a car accident in Australia on March 12, 2011. Stanley, who made these original recordings, is perhaps best known for his sound work with the Grateful Dead. He supervised the remastering of this Legacy Recordings project before his untimely passing. This is the first in a proposed series of recordings made by Stanley, to be called “Bear’s Sonic Journals.”