Thursday , October 1 2020
When you have an instrument as great as the voice of Janis Joplin, why would you emphasize anything else?

Music Review: Janis Joplin – The Woodstock Experience

This summer marks the 40th Anniversary of 1969's historic Woodstock Music And Arts Festival. As part of the celebration, Sony/Legacy Recordings is releasing a limited edition series of deluxe, double disc recordings by five of the artists whose performances at Woodstock changed the world.

Dubbed The Woodstock Experience, each double-CD set pairs a classic 1969 album from the featured artist, along with their full festival performance. All of the concert recordings — by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Sly And The Family Stone, and Santana — appear on these CDs in their entirety for the first time ever. All are packaged in eco-friendly sleeves, that include a mini-version of the original album cover and a 16 X 20 inch double-sided fold-out poster. With this series, which we are also calling The Woodstock Experience, Blogcritics will be reviewing each of these commemorative sets.

When I was thirteen years old, I saw Janis Joplin play at an outdoor concert held at Seattle's Sicks Stadium, the former home of our then pro-baseball team the Seattle Pilots. Jimi Hendrix also played there just a few weeks later — a show I also saw. Tragically, both would be dead just a few months later.

I was also able to meet Janis at that show. As the helicopter flew her in and she walked past the fence separating the makeshift backstage area from the crowd, I shouted over to her, "Hey Janis! Why weren't you in the movie Woodstock?"

The stuff a kid meeting one of his idols thinks to ask given the opportunity, right? Taking a swig from her bottle of Southern Comfort, she looked back at me and replied, "Probably because I didn't do the editing."

That mistake has now thankfully been rectified.

Janis is finally featured on The Woodstock Experience, a double-disc set coupling her complete Woodstock performance with her 1969 album, I Got Dem' Ol' Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!

As with the other artists in this series, the package on Kozmic Blues recreates the original album jacket in miniature form, right down to the red Columbia logo on the disc. There's nothing really fancy here, nor any extras like bonus tracks. But it's all still very nicely done.

Kozmic Blues is arguably Janis Joplin's most underrated album. There were not really any huge hits here, such as there was with Cheap Thrills ("Piece Of My Heart") before it, or with Pearl ("Me And Bobby McGee") after. But the album does feature some very nice work, and has more than its share of standouts.

The idea at the time was to re-position Janis as more of a mainstream solo act, following her time with psychedelic rockers Big Brother & The Holding Company — a band who too often got a bit of a rub from some people as being too sloppy or otherwise somehow beneath Joplin's obviously monumental talent as a vocalist. As a fan, I never bought into that argument for a second.

So Janis was recast as a white, but otherwise classic R&B act. They put this huge soul band behind her — one that also could very obviously play too — complete with a horn section. And what was once a very earthy blues singer backed by an even rawer band became something more akin to a rhythm and blues act in the mold of Tina Minus Ike. Or maybe Sam and Dave…and Janis. Anyway, something like that.

In the long run, the public didn't buy this version of Janis, and by the next year she was back to a five-piece band on the more rock-oriented Pearl album. Still, Kozmic Blues does have its moments.

On "One Good Man," the guitar, by lone Big Brother holdover Sam Andrew, is brought to the forefront just enough to recall the more loosey-goosey groove of the Cheap Thrills days. Oddly, this is one of very few tracks on this album where the guitar is at all prominently featured.

"Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)" also features a classic Janis vocal, and probably should have been a bigger hit than it was. The title track is a slow cookin' blues cut that builds in intensity and is probably the one track where the big horn arrangement adds — rather than detracts from — the power of the actual song.

Other tracks on the album include a cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," and the bluesy "Little Girl Blue." There's also something of an attempt to recreate Janis' signature version of Willie Mae Thornton's "Ball And Chain" in "Work Me Lord." This works for awhile, but it eventually collapses under the weight of a horn arrangement that overpowers everything else, including the vocal and finally, the song itself.

Janis' live performance at Woodstock — also with the big soul band heard on Kozmic Blues — is likewise kind of a mixed bag. While it's definitely great to finally be able to hear it, this still comes from a period where Janis was in a bit of a career and artistic flux, and it shows at times here.

At first though, Janis and the band come on like gangbusters.

With the band cranked and the horns blaring away on "Raise Your Hand," Janis herself belts out the song with all of the passion that made her such a huge star back then. For a second or two there, you get the feeling this is gonna' be the same sort of high-energy treat that Sly And The Family Stone's set was. Janis and the band continue this frenetic pace through Nick Gravenites' "As Good As You've Been To This World."

By the end of that song, though, Janis sounds like she's already running a little out of breath. She still sounds great on the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," but you can tell she's also slowing down, if even by just a touch. Even so, her voice still sounds pretty damned amazing.

The other rub though is with the band itself. Great musicians that they are, there are just too many of those horn-heavy arrangements here. They also play at such a breakneck pace, that Janis occasionally seems to have a tough time keeping up with them.

That pace slows on a meandering arrangement of "Summertime" — a song which is normally one of Janis' show stoppers — but here again it's a case of too much band and not enough Janis. To her credit, Janis still belts it out like a trooper though.

But on a cover of Otis Redding's "Can't Turn You Loose," Janis is nowhere to be heard at all. When you have an instrument as great as the voice of Janis Joplin, why would you emphasize anything else?

The set closes with versions of the Big Brother staples "Piece Of My Heart" and "Ball And Chain" which although decent sounding enough, come nowhere near the classic versions heard on the Cheap Thrills album. The former, once again, is just too busy with the horn arrangements and sounds rushed as a result. The latter suffers from too many starts and stops by the band, in comparison to the slow-building intensity of the Big Brother version.

For historical value though, the performance here certainly serves its purpose well enough. It's just hard not to make comparisons to the already familiar versions of some of these songs, particularly given the rather radical left turn Janis took with the horns and with the bigger band.

The Woodstock Experience series, including this set by Janis Joplin, arrives both digitally and in stores on Tuesday June 30.

Next up, we close out our series with Johnny Winter.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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