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Music Review: Big Brother and the Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin – Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968

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There’s no shortage of material documenting what Big Brother and the Holding Company could do live during the years 1966 to 1968. For example, Live in San Francisco 1966 captured the raw state of the group a few months after Janis Joplin joined the already established line-up of Sam Andrew and James Gurley (guitars), Peter Albin (bass), and Dave Getz (drums). Live at Winterland ’68 demonstrated what the group sounded like at their creative peak before the legendary Cheap Thrills sessions. In fact, this performance yielded the version of “Ball and Chain” used on Cheap Thrills which included two other live tracks, “Combination Of The Two” and “I Need A Man To Love.”

Recorded June 23, only two months after the Winterland concert, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 is a more than welcome addition to this Big Brother catalogue and is by far the best of all the live releases to date. For one matter, it’s a historical artifact on several levels. At the time, the Ballroom was run by a collective defining what the San Francisco spirit was all about, meaning members of the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead. In short order, promoter Bill Graham took over the venue and re-named it Fillmore West.

In addition, the upcoming release date for the Carousel show on March 12 is timed to honor the passing of Augustus Owsley Stanley III who was killed in a car accident in Australia on March 12, 2011. Best known by his professional name “Bear,” Stanley was legendary for his “cooking” high-quality LSD and being the innovative sound engineer for the Grateful Dead. Not only was Bear the man who originally recorded the Big Brother Carousel show all those years ago, he supervised the remastering of this release shortly before his death. This disc is intended to be the first in a series of his archives made available for the public, collectively titled Bear’s Sonic Journals. If this release is any indication, we all have much to look forward to.

What aficionados of Big Brother shouldn’t expect are many surprises beyond the best audio sound possible for the 14 tracks. Some of them previously appeared on 1972’s Janis Joplin In Concert, but in a much rougher form. The band’s setlist of 1968 didn’t vary much from show to show, and most of the songs from Cheap Thrills are represented here. What’s very clear and well worth remembering is that Big Brother was a band of five equal parts, even if the spotlight ended up being centered on the lady in the middle. Some songs certainly feature Joplin’s astonishing ability to belt out the blues, but this experimental, improvisational band spent even more stage time showing off the guitar work of Andrews and Gurley with under-appreciated support from Albin and Getz. Depending on what story you believe, this was possibly the cause of Joplin’s ultimate departure just two months after this performance. According to Andrew, Joplin was unhappy the band wouldn’t allow additional musicians like keyboardists or horn sections to altar what they considered their signature sound. They weren’t a supporting ensemble, at least in their minds. Perhaps a quarter of the material was Joplin’s beloved blues—the rest was extended instrumental jams so typical of the San Francisco milieu.

For example, from the first notes of the Carousel concert, Big Brother took the stage like a confident tribe of electric minstrels ready to get down to rock and roll business. By this time, Andrew’s full-throated “Combination Of The Two” was the logical show opener, with both Andrew and Joplin sharing vocal duties. Then, nice blues guitar interplay and the two singers deliver an almost polished—by Big Brother standards— “I Need A Man To Love.” The lyrics of “Flower In The Sun” are now unintentionally ironic: “It’s all over, it’s all history.”

Without question, when Joplin’s singing is the point, you hear classic blues. Sizzling versions of “Summertime,” “Piece Of My Heart,” and Joplin’s closing performance piece, “Ball and Chain,” are standouts here. On the other hand, “I’m Mad” borders on a Canned Heat-inspired boogie with no Janis, just alternating guitar leads showcasing the very different styles of Andrew and Gurley. In a similar vein, the almost-pop instrumental “Coo Coo” is a perfect track to play for anyone needing a good idea of what “psychedelic” meant. It’s guaranteed, to borrow a line from Freddie Mercury, to blow your mind.

The full group rocks out on “Catch Me Daddy,” which includes a middle section where Getz shows off his percussion chops while Janis gets sultry and teasing. Likewise, “It’s A Deal” is a driving rocker with vocal duties shared around the front line. To demonstrate just how different live performances can be, there are two versions of the Memphis styled soul of “Call On Me,” the second taken from a Saturday June 22nd show offered as a bonus track—and this bonus is just that. It’s straight-up blues and just beautiful.

Of course, not every song is a nugget as Big Brother wasn’t always the tightest of bands. This is evident on the awkward “Light Is Faster Than Sound,” the musical equivalent to the seeds and stems in your stash. Janis sounds a bit pooped on the encore, “Down On Me.” The band as a whole almost rushes through their hit, ready to call it a night. But that’s what makes this experience authentic—the spot ons, the fall offs, the thrills and warts alike. Bear in mind that stage equipment of the time didn’t permit the singers to hear themselves clearly which led to timing problems for any band. Back to “Bear,” one of his intentions was to record groups so they could evaluate their performances to improve future shows. What he couldn’t have known was that this set was one of the last times this ensemble would work together.

As a result, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 benefits from being so well recorded in the first place. 44 years later, the digital remastering of the concert resulted in very clean reproductions of the vocal and instrumental performances with excellent dynamics and separation. If you take the advice spelled out in the liner notes, you’ll try to hear the show as “Bear” intended by moving your speakers close together as he couldn’t faithfully do a stereo mix. Reading the very informative notes, in fact, will deepen your awareness of what you’re hearing and make you grateful that engineers like “Bear” were working at a time when history was being made, even if they didn’t know it.

Considering that Big Brother is often described as a raw, ragged, even sloppy ensemble from whom Joplin was wise to depart, it’s interesting to bathe in their sound anew and remember they were “Big Brother featuring Janis Joplin” and not “Janis Joplin and Big Brother,” although some publicity of the era did make that claim. If all you know is Cheap Thrills, the Carousel Ballroom set is a perfect means to widen your appreciation for this seminal band. Big Brother and the Holding Company was, truth be known, a combination of the five.

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About Wesley Britton