Reviewed on this page:
Big Brother & The Holding Company - Live At Winterland '68 -
Cheap Thrills - I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! - Pearl - Joplin In Concert - Farewell Song
Was Janis Joplin just a blues-rock Elvis, a second-rate talent
propelled to stardom because she was a white woman who could do a
passable impersonation of a black blues singer? I vote "No": she
was a legitimately great blues singer with correspondingly huge
personal problems, which often interfered with her music and ended
her life only a few years into her recording career. Another 60s
artist (like Hendrix) whose myth has overshadowed her real musical
accomplishments, she's well worth getting to know. (DBW)
One thing for sure: Janis ain't like nothing else.
And in addition to being distinctive, she was the first really high-profile female rock singer to carve a completely independent path, making her a feminist icon.
But her body of work strikes me as being thin. A good comparison is with Rod Stewart, another distinctive, highly emotive late 60s singer who people either love or hate. Unlike Stewart, who worked first with Jeff Beck and later with Ron Wood and the Faces, Janis' musical collaborators were completely unremarkable.
Unlike Stewart, who consistently teamed with Wood to write his own material, Janis stuck largely with cover versions, although a few originals were big hits ("Move Over"; "Mercedes Benz"). Unlike Stewart, who dabbled in proto-funk, orchestrated balladry, English folk, and electrified blues/R& B, once Big Brother got away from West Coast folk rock Janis' repertoire consisted of a slightly acidified take on the latter. Unlike Stewart, Janis is revered as a pop icon and classified as a "serious" artist. As many would say about Joplin's fellow Bay Area cult figures the Grateful Dead, I just don't get it.
Without question, the best non-commercial Janis Joplin site I've seen is Kozmic Blues.
It's so thorough it's downright obsessive. (JA)
Big Brother & The Holding Company: Pete Albin (bass and guitar); Sam Andrew (guitar, vocals and bass); Dave Getz (drums); James Gurley (guitar).
Full Tilt Boogie: Richard Bell (piano); Brad Campbell (bass); Ken Pearson (organ); Clark Pierson (drums); John Till (guitar).
Cheaper Thrills (Big Brother: rec. 1966, rel. 1984)
A live album recorded in San Francisco in 1966. The track listing is quite unusual, with a bunch of blues and folk numbers the band never committed to disc.
Rhino Records released the same tape at the same time under the title Big Brother & The Holding Co. Live.
I have been told that the sound quality is poor.
Unfortunately, I've never seen a copy of either version. (JA)
Big Brother & The Holding Company (Big Brother: 1966)
West Coast pseudo-folkie proto-psychedelia (think
The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off); although Janis is less prominent
here than on any of her other records, it has its moments,
particularly the traditional "Down On Me" and "All Is Loneliness."
Frequently embarassing - especially when Joplin gives the lead vocals away to the other band members - it also lacks much excitement because the performances are timid and the guitars are undistorted.
The two good tracks are memorable, though. (JA)
Live At Winterland '68 (Big Brother: rec. 1968, rel. 1998)
A nicely packaged but not particularly illuminating live album that was recorded at a couple of shows in April, 1968.
All of the takes were previously unreleased, although similar versions of a couple tunes from the Winterland dates have been put out elsewhere.
The performances are solid, there are no sprawling jams or obnoxious monologues, and everything important on Cheap Thrills is included ("Combination Of The Two"; "Ball And Chain"; "I Need A Man To Love"; "Summertime"; "Piece Of My Heart"). Plus there are two different versions of "Down On Me," the key track from their unsuccessful debut LP.
It's certainly a better buy than Joplin In Concert.
But the novelty quotient is low: the hits are played basically by the book, and the lesser material is mostly either lifted from the last record ("Bye Bye Baby"; "Easy Rider"; "Light Is Faster Than Sound"), already available on Joplin's two early 70s ripoff records ("Farewell Song"; "Catch Me Daddy"; "Magic Of Love"), or just plain weak ("Flower In The Sun").
Even though the band just wasn't inspired, it is interesting to realize just how much effort they put into their relatively economical arrangements.
A reasonable buy for collectors, but get the original records first. (JA)
Cheap Thrills (Big Brother: 1968)
- A major step forward, and the high point of the "San Francisco
sound." (Note to JA: Sly also was from SF, and the scene was a big
influence on FZ, so don't be too quick to dismiss it.) Janis's
voice is turned loose on "I Need A Man To Love" and "Ball & Chain"
as the addition of distortion and high volume disguise the
guitarists' lack of technique; she writes an excellent, intensely
personal blues ("Turtle Blues"); and the cover of George Gershin's
"Summertime" is uncannily beautiful, an emotional masterpiece of
dynamics. I never liked "Piece Of My Heart" but that's here too.
- Over-rated by almost everyone, it seems. Janis' horde of Big Brother backing guitarists were derivative, clumsy, and over-loud, and while Janis was a better singer than any other woman in the 60s rock scene - except perhaps Joni Mitchell - that's not saying much, because said scene was relentlessly sexist. "Piece Of My Heart" was the group's only Top 40 hit; it's overplayed and earsplitting, but solid like much of the material.
I'd rate this lower if it weren't for the disc's considerable historical importance and superiority to almost everything else that came out of the Bay Area in the late 60s. (JA)
I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969)
- A disappointment; Janis quit Big Brother and went for a more laid
back, professional sound. This leaves more space for her voice, but
her singing is more restrained as well, and the tunes are mostly
second-rate, except for "Try." (DBW)
- More specifically, she went for a Stax-Volt big-band R & B sound, retaining only guitarist Sam Andrew from Big Brother, and adding a horn section and keyboard players. Wilson is right to criticize the derivative songwriting; Janis is no Aretha Franklin; and, worst of all, the band is no Booker T. and the MG's ("Work Me, Lord" seems to drag on forever). But the record's still an entertaining listen, and Andrew plays the electric blues quite solidly ("One Good Man"). Weirdest moment: Janis accidentally croons "little boy - girl blue..." in the middle of said song, perhaps addressed to Janis' girlfriend. (JA)
Be A Brother (Big Brother: 1970)
I'd always assumed that BBHC simply ceased to exist after Joplin quit the band in late 1968, but in fact they were able to get two albums released on the Columbia label over the next few years.
The first one features producer Nick Gravenites on vocals and Dave Schallock on lead guitar, with the compositions mostly being credited to Gravenites, Andrew, and the band. Joplin, Mike Finnegan, and the Tower of Power are among the guests. (JA)
- Recorded with Full Tilt Boogie, here she perfects the formula she
attempted on Kozmic Blues: intelligent rock arrangements focusing
on her vocal interpretations. The backing musicians are good, but
they avoid the spotlight, except on the instrumental "Buried Alive
In The Blues," which sounds like the theme to an early seventies TV
show. High points are "Cry Baby," "Half Moon," her compositions
"Move Over" and "Mercedes Benz," and "Me and Bobby McGee," which
boosted no-talent hanger-on Kris Kristofferson into the public
- I'll grant that this is pleasant. But dumping the entire band from Kozmic Blues (only the bass player was held over) didn't change Janis' sound substantially, much less improve it. And with both piano and cheesy organ on most tracks, Janis shows signs of slipping into soft rock irrelevancy ("A Woman Left Lonely"; "Trust Me"; "Get It While You Can"). If she'd lived long enough to continue in that direction, her reputation would have been ruined. The fact that the sentimental, stripped down "Bobby McGee" earned Janis her only #1 hit - her only Top 40 hit of any kind - just proves the point.
The solo vocal "Mercedes Benz" is pretty daring, though. (JA)
How Hard It Is (Big Brother: 1971)
The band's second and last attempt at a studio album after Joplin's departure.
Andrew and Getz wrote most of the tunes, with Andrew handling the lead vocals.
Mike Finnegan plays keyboards and there are a bunch of guests including Gravenites and Schallock.
After this the band continued touring - they're still around and put out a new album in 1998. (JA)
Joplin In Concert (recorded 1968 & 1970, released
- A live collection covering both the Big Brother and Full
Tilt Boogie periods, it has excellent performances and a
representative selection of her best tunes. (DBW)
- The 1968 Big Brother tracks are rote ("Piece Of My Heart"), and the mid-70 Full Tilt material is sometimes embarassingly sloppy. Worse, there are several long-winded Joplin monologues that are at turns egotistical, spaced out, and preachy. Other than a Full Tilt version of "Ball And Chain," there's nothing unusual about those selections. The Big Brother half admittedly does include little-heard cuts that you might find refreshing, like the powerful "Down On Me" and trippy "All Is Loneliness" (both from the group's rare debut record), and the early 1970 blues "Ego Rock," a semi-improvised duet with Nick Gravenites (otherwise unavailable). But there are also new treasures like the amateurish blues rave up "Road Block" that never should have been released. The record's a grab bag, with the main selling point being that you get more than an hour of music for your money. (JA)
Farewell Song (rec. 1967 - 1970, rel. 1982)
This compilation of "new" material is split about 50-50 between live tunes and studio outtakes. It's almost entirely dominated by 1968 Big Brother cuts, with one track each featuring Full Tilt; the Kozmic Blues Band ("Raise Your Hand," standard but professional Stax-Volt fare); and, most strangely, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (the slick, brassy studio cut "One Night Stand," produced by Todd Rundgren).
There's one really early number - an off-key "Amazing Grace," leading into a brief, joyful, Dead-like "Hi Heel Sneakers," from January, 1967 - and some weird Airplane-like experimentation ("Harry"), but it's mostly the sludgey acid rock Big Brother is known and loved for ("Magic Of Love"). With a heap of covers, only Sam Andrews' title track is a serious original composition. There's barely enough here to fill an album, but worse cash-ins have been perpetrated, and it's less sloppy and embarassing than the live record. (JA)
Aw heck, move over.