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THE BAND AT THEIR LIVE PEAK
on March 13, 2012
Wow! This is BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY the way they should be heard. This night was somehow different. One of those times that happens to good bands (and audiences) every so often. This is the stuff of legend. Something special was happening right before your eyes and ears. A couple of songs in and you just knew. Everything came together into one overwhelming sonic experience-one of those special nights when everything was right. The late Chet Helms was right in 1966, adding Joplin into this band that felt they needed a powerful singer. Both Janis Joplin and the band (especially James Gurley's guitar work) are so connected, so in tune with each other and the music, that this particular night stands as one of their best shows-period. The band came to play-no aimless noodling or overwrought vocals, on that summer evening in 1968 (shortly before the band broke apart), at the Carousel Ballroom.
It's interesting to think that around the same time when this concert was recorded, the album "Sex, Dope, and Cheap Thrills" (soon titled just "Cheap Thrills") was being readied (final mixing went 36 hours straight) for release. Like many "live" (or partially live) albums, it was tinkered with. The audience noise on the "live" tracks wasn't authentic-it was people screaming and clapping in the studio. The opening introduction from (the late) Bill Graham was added in the studio. But the album did capture some of the feel (along with the help of R. Crumb's artwork) of the band live-but not like this new album.
Joplin's vocals are transcendent-full of emotion, and sex, and pain. The band is right there with Joplin at every twist and turn. David Getz' (he was also a Fulbright Fellow and art teacher at S.F. Art Institute) straightforward drumming lays down an insistent groove. Peter Albin's (he was a postman for a time supporting his family) bass playing is in just the right spot-adding to the underlying rhythm for added depth. Sam Andrew's (who held a degree in linguistics and would read the classics in their original languages) guitar and vocals (especially) fit Joplin's vocals and the music like a glove. And James Gurley's (who also had a wife and a child named Hongo) sometimes Coltrane/Coleman inspired guitar playing is on another level entirely-visceral and excitingly sharp-and a perfect complement to Joplin's (who always felt she was a disappointment to her family) impassioned vocals. Something like a sonic foil to her raw, pleading vocals.
It's impossible to single out favorite tunes-they all have so much power and emotion-vocally and instrumentally. Nevertheless, some (for me) highlights. Beginning with a fiery "Combination Of The Two", you know you're in for something special. "I Need A Man To Love" is Joplin telling you in no uncertain terms what she wants and needs-with the band following every vocal nuance. "Light Is Faster Than Sound", besides being a great 60's ballroom dance tune, has the first of this night's evidence, of Gurley's Coltrane inspired guitar playing-edgy and rough but controlled. "Summertime" is one of the best (if not the best) versions the band ever released. "Call On Me" is likewise one of the best tracks out of many. After announcing that the cops are going to start towing the Hell's Angel's bikes, so they better get out on the street and claim them before it's too late, the band begins to lay down a tough groove on "Jam-I'm Mad (Mad Man Blues)". It's on this tune (which most people will remember from John Lee Hooker's recording) that Gurley's Coltrane inspired playing is really evident. This is raggedly right, psychedelic, blues based rock 'n' roll. This is what the S.F. ballroom experience was all about-hot, joyous jamming-the music ebbing and flowing at will.
"Piece Of My Heart" is so full of energy-Joplin belting it out for all she's worth, Getz' martial style drumming keeps things grounded, Albin's bass is earth shaking, and Gurley's guitar is white hot with barely contained intensity. "Coo-Coo" is the band's version of S.F. style surf music-the deep, penetrating bass, the maracas weaving in and out, the vocal interjections, and (once again), Gurley's guitar is what people think of when they think late 60's, S.F. live music. And then Joplin kicks up the energy with a short vocal-which inspires Gurley and the band to pick up the tempo and intensity, until it's all finally released after almost 6 1/2 minutes.
"Ball And Chain" is simply on another level. Previously released live versions had their good points. But from the start the band is tight, the playing alternating between fierce power and subtle build up. Joplin's vocal is intense with yearning and pain, and when Gurley echoes her pain wracked vocals-you know you're experiencing the band on one of their best nights-ever. For Joplin/Big Brother fans, this is nine minutes of an incredible, draining performance. The night's set comes to a close with "Down On Me", with all the energy and instrumental firepower this band is capable of delivering. "Call On Me", from the previous night, shows how the band could change a song's feel-compare both versions and you'll hear what I mean.
About the recording itself. This is the complete (approximately 71 minutes) concert as recorded on Stanley's Nagra tape machine. There's no "sweetening" afterward in the studio. As Owsley Stanley said-this is a true concert recording-warts and all-be ready to hear a couple of short sonic anomalies. There's no remixing, no editing (except crowd noise), or alterations whatsoever from the original recording. Stanley oversaw the mastering for this release (which originally came out in 1972 as a double album) to ensure we hear it as he intended. Some won't like it-to each his own. The sound is a "non-stereo mix"-the vocals and drums are on one side, the other instruments are on the other side. Stanley did this on purpose-he wanted to keep intact the sound and feel of being in front of the band in the ballroom. He used omni-directional microphones to capture spill-over, which blends both sides slightly. It states in the (nicely done) booklet to move your speakers close together in order to hear the concert the way Stanley intended. Doing so creates a unique sweet spot (different from stereo), that gives the impression of being in the hall, hearing the band live. Loud is even better.
I have to admit doing so does rekindle some long held, hazily dormant, yet fine recollections of being inside the hall, with a few hundred friends-who are passing bottles of wine (both straight and "electric"), small squares of "special" paper ("just put it on your tongue"), and funny looking cigarettes, up and down the line-not that I was partaking-everybody grooving to the music. What a time for both the band and the audience in the very last days of peace/love/tie-die/flowers-after this it was speed/heroin/overdoses/rip-offs. Joplin and the band were a force to be reckoned with, and they played with an almost intuitive intensity. When they were "on", they were unstoppable. You could feel something different in the air, something special when they really had it together. Nothing sloppy, every note and chord, every passionate vocal nuance was put out there, and was soaked up by stunned listeners. On the most powerful tunes I remember as the sound pushed against you-washed over and through you-as you stood there, momentarily transfixed, oblivious to what's happening around you. If you were lucky enough to witness this band during it's prime, you know what I mean. If not, this will give you an idea of what it was like. The very atmosphere seemed charged (even with no "extra" help) with something special-undefinable-you could sense it in the air. Like the best Owsley acid, this is an intense experience, yet everything flows along as it was meant to do.
But, luckily, you don't need anything artificial to get blown away by this incendiary set. The power, the force, is palpable. This is what people mean when they describe Joplin's power and emotion being unlike anyone else. And the band-sometimes described as ragged and crude-are easily Joplin's equal. Anyone with a passion for late 60's S.F. Rock needs to hear this. I know for a fact that Bear recorded a number of concerts of artists he liked-in several genres. Hopefully the tapes have survived, and we'll be hearing more soon.