It’s not going out on too thin of a limb to say that Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 is for the hardest of hardcore Janis Joplin fans only. The concert album was recorded just months before Joplin parted ways with the band. The concert was recorded by audio engineer and LSD producer Owsley “Bear” Stanley. This is the first in a planned series of live recordings made by Stanley, dubbed “Bear’s Sonic Journals.” The main attraction here is Joplin’s characteristically intense vocals, as the band sounds incredibly sloppy.
The extensive 27-paged booklet is loaded with liner notes that help provide context for this recording, specifically what Stanley was trying to accomplish with its presentation. The mix, we are told, represents a replica of Stanley’s own sonic experience. This is supposedly how he heard the band, according to the notes. I guess that means he primarily heard vocals and lead guitar, as the rhythm section generally gets short shrift. There’s actually an essay in the booklet entitled, “How to Listen to This Album.” No disrespect to the deceased Stanley (he perished in a car accident in 2011), but I never thought I’d see instructions on how to listen to a CD.
As explained in the notes, Stanley’s mixing technique was based on the idea that in nature, “no sound ever comes from more than one source simultaneously.” So he placed certain elements in the left channel and the rest in the right, not duplicating them for a traditional stereo effect. In this case, the left speaker has the vocals and drums, while the right has everything else. The “instructions” tell us the album should be listened to with the speakers right next to each other, blending the sound. Alternatively, the suggestion is made to add a third speaker – using it to double the right channel. In this scenario, the left channel (with vocals and drums) is placed in between the doubled right channel, effectively becoming the center.
That’s a bit of effort, depending on your stereo setup. The notes assure us it will be worth the effort. I will say pushing the speakers together did produce better results than my first listening. The mix sounded disorienting with the speakers apart. It should be pointed out that the instruments and voices aren’t strictly hard-panned to one side or the other. There is some spillover between the channels. But even with the speakers together, I feel the drums and bass are too far back. Maybe this can simply be chalked up to the limited recording techniques of the era. But then there’s the problem of the music itself.
Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 is a great place to hear impassioned, raw Janis Joplin vocals. She’s on fire throughout the recording, including sizzling takes on “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball & Chain.” In the liner notes, Stanley states the band was “kicking ass and having a hell of a good time.” I believe the good time part, but this is some terribly sloppy and indulgent playing. The musicianship just isn’t up to snuff. The solo break on “I Need a Man to Love” sounds like the guitarists weren’t sure what key they were in. The extended jamming on tracks such as “Light is Faster Than Sound” and “Jam – I’m Mad (Mad Man Blues)” is aimless, loaded with bum notes and fluffed licks. The backing vocals throughout are not only terribly off key, they’re mixed way too loud.
Again, this may in fact be an accurate representation of how the concert sounded in person. As Stanley explains, most live rock albums (then or now) “fixed” problems by overdubbing in the studio. I agree with him that this violates the basic principle of a “live” album. As a historical document, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 is a worthwhile piece of Janis Joplin’s celebrated career. But aside from her scorching lead vocals, there isn’t much else to recommend about this album.