I’ve lost track of the number of times the term unique has been used to describe a particular recording. It’s reached the point now where reading a recording or a performer being described in this manner will set my teeth on edge and guarantee I’ll be prejudiced against them before I’ve listened to the item in question. I tell you this so you know I don’t use the term lightly under any circumstances. However, the recently released live recording of Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin from Columbia/Legacy Recordings, Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968, can only be described as unique.
First of all the circumstances surrounding the Carousel itself that one summer were unusual in the pop music business. It wasn’t being run by a promoter or a record label, but by a collective of local Bay area bands including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother And The Holding Company. While their tenure only lasted a few months before pop music’s first mega promoter Bill Graham took it over and renamed it Fillmore West, every band who performs live today owes them a big thank you. Specifically they owe them for turning over the setting up of the sound system to the late Owsley “Bear” Stanley, who died in a car crash in March 2011.
Stanley had been mixing the Dead’s live sound since 1966. When he started, dedicated sound systems for rock and roll bands didn’t exist and bands were constantly blowing their Public Address (PA) systems. Not only was he constantly fixing equipment and modifying it as best he could, he worked with the manufacturers, suggesting improvements to make it better suited to rock music. As a sound man, he recorded gigs in an attempt to fine tune his set ups in order to get the best possible sound at live concerts. According to the liner notes written by his son that accompany this CD, he referred to these recordings as his sonic journals. He tried to make each recording an exact reflection of what the music sounded like for the audience.
So that means each recording he made was unique to the place, time, and whatever band was performing. Putting the CD of Big Brother And The Holding Company recorded that summer into your player takes you back to that summer Sunday in San Francisco on June 23, 1968. Be warned, the sound is far different then anything you’ve ever heard before as Stanley was limited by his equipment – the drums and vocals are heard in one channel and everything else in the other – but there’s an immediacy to it that puts you in the heart of the action. Close your eyes at any point and you’ll swear you’re in the Carousel. Close your eyes while Joplin is singing something like Gershwin’s “Summertime” and you’ll be surprised to find when you open them she’s not standing in front of you.
One thing you have to be aware of is these are warts and all recordings.Stuff that would normally be polished after the fact with mixing and effects has been left intact. In those days bands didn’t have on-stage monitors. The only way they had to hear themselves was to listen to the sound as it bounced back to them from the hall they were playing in. So you’re going to hear the occasional missed note in the vocals, especially in the harmonies. However the clarity of the sound more than makes up for any of these imperfections. While it might sound odd to us putting the vocals and drums through one channel and guitars and bass through the other, the end result is you’re able to distinguish each voice and instrument as separate entities. Instead of the bass being merely a presence pulsating in your sternum there are times you actually hear the individual notes the bassist is playing. Keeping the two guitars apart from the vocals means there’s no danger of the latter being lost in a mix.
Listening to this disc makes it abundantly clear that in spite of what anybody might say to the contrary, without Janis Joplin Big Brother and the Holding Company wouldn’t have been much different from hundreds of other bands. Sure they were are all skilled and talented musicians but listening to them in the unforgiving environment created by Stanley’s raw sound, you don’t hear anything that would distinguish them from any other hard-working, blues-based rock band. Listen to the opening instrumental, “Combination of the Two”, where Joplin and Sam Andrew (guitar and vocals) do a little vocal improvisation over the top of the music and compare it to the next track, “I Need a Man to Love.”
Joplin’s vocals explode out of the music like a comet burning across the night sky. Anybody who has ever heard her sing knows how each word, growl, and moan she uttered sounded like the raw stuff making up the human soul. When her voice cracked it wasn’t because she was straining to reach a note, it was because of her emotional intensity. It was if it wasn’t possible for the human voice to express what she was feeling. Your heart almost stops in those moments when she articulates, without sound, passions that nobody else since has been able to express.
I’ve heard everyone from world class opera divas to internationally renowned jazz singers perform the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime” from their opera Porgy & Bess, and I’ve yet to hear anyone ascend the same emotional heights as Joplin. She comes close to going over the top with her opening rendering of the word “summertime,” but brings herself back from the edge as she moves into the opening verse. She might not be a poor black sharecropper’s wife from the south, but she has the empathy to make every one of Bess’ words of hope to her daughter ring true.
Live At The Carousel Ballroom contains some of Joplin’s best known material from her time with Big Brother and the Holding Company. “Ball & Chain,” “Down On Me,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Call On Me,” and the rest of the fourteen tracks on the disc showcase what made her one of the premier blues vocalists of her generation. There might be better quality recordings out there of this material, but because of the way in which these cuts were captured, raw and mostly separated from everything else in the mix, you truly appreciate the intensity she brought to every note sung and the cost she paid for each.
During the disc, one of the band members makes an announcement warning the Hells Angels that the cops are out front and ticketing their bikes. Combined with the way the sound recreates how Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Company sounded in concert, the recording lives up to its billing as being a window into the past. In his notes about the recording, Stanley suggests listeners push their stereo speakers close together and boost the volume to fully appreciate the experience. Do this and, with your eyes closed, let your thoughts drift. You can just about picture the scene, San Francisco in the summer of 1968. It’s a great trip that every music lover should take whenever possible. This album makes it possible.