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.