#janis #bigbrother




I have long been a fan of the psychedelic music scene that emerged in San Francisco during the 1960s. I was lucky to catch numerous acts such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana perform live. They have all survived in different incarnations to continue sonic explorations. Unfortunately, I was never able to catch Janis Joplin perform live. I realize that her raw blues don’t appeal to everyone but I have always enjoyed them.


She was an honest performer if nothing else. That is something that often seems lacking in today’s music. Yes, there was a rawness to her music but it captured genuine pain and emotion. She was also very assertive in her sexuality. This was something uncommon at that time. I think it also bothered people that she was very open about her sexual appetites. My attitude is more power to her. If you like slick, glossy music then you will not like this music. This is what the blues is all about. She is very similar to the great Billie Holliday in this respect. Her vocals were intense and expressive. Perhaps she was not the best vocalist in history but she could be counted on to move an audience.


Thankfully, there are vast archives of great music for those of us who were born too late. Many classic performances were recorded and preserved for posterity. It took a few decades to realize their true value. Columbia/Legacy had the foresight to release a live disc 30 years after the performance.  Janis Joplin with Big Brother and The Holding Company: Live at Winterland is a a wonderful disc. This is a performance that captured the band at the height of their power.


This disc features 14 songs culled from two shows at the Winterland Ballroom on April 12 and 13, 1968. I was less than two years old when these shows were recorded and yet I can still relate to their power. Besides Joplin on vocals, Big Brother & the Holding Co consisted of: James Gurley on guitar and vocals, Sam Andrews on guitar and vocals, David Getz on drums and vocals and Peter Albin on bass and vocals.


 Joplin was a misfit from Texas who found a home in San Francisco’s hippie culture. This shows represent a homecoming of sorts. They were returning from shows on the East Coast. There is a purity that is stunning. Joplin was at her best for these performances. I also find a kind of subtle beauty to emerge in spite the rough edges. Janis was capable of singing pretty when she wanted to. But most of her performance was about intensity and passion.


The disc opens up with Down On Me. This song is featured twice on the disc. It opens and closes the set. I am unsure if the song was played twice during the shows or if the disc includes versions from each night. This song features some nice vocals by Janis. She does a little shouting and screaming. The band is being pushed beyond their limits. It sets the tone for a blistering set. It is no real secret that Janis was better than the band that backed her. They were competent musicians who were able to play very loose but they never hit the level she was at. One can only wonder what would have happened if Janis lived long enough to fully explore a solo career.


While there was resentment among the band, it did not affect the performance. They also seem to have played with great immediacy. Andrews wrote some of the best songs in the repertoire including Combination of the Two and Flower In the Song. He also co-wrote I Need a Man to Love which featured some of Joplin’s most impassioned vocals. Her loneliness can be felt in this song. The version here is stunning. No one can ever accuse her of leaving anything on the stage. This song is both mournful and uplifting. Andrews sung lead on a rocking version of Combination. This is a great rock and roll number. Joplin is very comfortable providing background vocals. She also provides backing vocals to Gurley on his song <i>Easy Rider</i>. This song feels like a cross between country and rock.


Piece of My Heart is one of my favorite songs from the set. It was the only hit single they achieved as a band. I usually come away from the song feeling as if Janis has indeed given me a piece of her heart. I also love the reading they do of the Gershwin classic Summertime. This song becomes a scorcher. She uses her background in blues and folk to great effect transforming the song into something new. The cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain emerged as the centerpiece for the band’s shows. This song would often be extended to nine or ten minutes long. The version here clocks in at 9:43. Janis is really in strong voice on this song. She was a great blues singer in her own right.


This disc is an essential recording for fans of the 60s Bay Area scene. While I think Janis may have been better than the band, one can not accuse them of not trying. And they were able to back her well. They are better than they get credit for. They were able to respond to Janis prodding and heighten the intensity of the songs. They are relentless during Ball and Chain. Of course they never achieved much success after they she left them but that seems besides the point now.


This is a great recording for those who love live performances and want to capture rock and roll music at its most powerful and expressive. If you like the blues and you like raw, emotive singing and unbridled passion in your music then this is a disc you really should seek out.