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Big Brother and the Holding Company

Live at the Carousel Ballroom, 1968

(Sony Legacy; US: 13 Mar 2012; UK: Import)

There’s a scene in Scars of Sweet Paradise, Alice Echols’ masterful biography of Janis Joplin, in which the burgeoning rock goddess gets pulled over by the police while on a road trip with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. “As the police in town searched the car, they kept taunting Sam [Andrew], James [Gurley], and Dave [Getz]. ‘Are you guys or girls?’ they asked. Janis wasn’t having any of it and simply yelled, ‘Fuck you, man.’” On the one hand, this is a classic anecdote because it underlines the take-no-shit attitude for which Joplin became famous (and which comes through so powerfully in her best music). But, I wonder if there’s any deeper significance to the fact that Joplin, never one to accept the gendered limitations placed upon her as a woman in a man’s world, was the only one of the group to push back against this pair of bigoted cops. Was her outburst really about the mistreatment of her bandmates? Or was it about her resentment that the patrolmen were leaving her out of their taunting, reminding her that the important subject here was the male?


It’s easy to forget, given her posthumous canonization as the first lady of hard rock, that Janis Joplin was really only a component of a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company for the first few years of her career. Though she was an undeniably dynamic and propulsive component, she was neither the lead singer nor the focal point of many of their songs. The boys in the band had just as much room to stretch out, to perform in the lead, as she did. For many rock critics and fans of her work, it was precisely this democratic approach to the band that inevitably spelled the end of their relationship: Janis Joplin, the only real star among them, finally outgrew Big Brother. Well, perhaps. And I can’t find any reason to complain about the innovative ways Joplin reinvented her sound with subsequent acts like the Full Tilt Boogie Band. But, given the opportunity to spend some time in the sonic maelstrom that is this fabulous concert from the late, great Carousel Ballroom, I am left staggered by the unanswerable question of just what might this group of musicians have managed to accomplish had they stuck it out a little longer?


But, of course, they didn’t. So what we are left with is one fairly shaky studio record (their 1967 self-titled debut), one fairly great studio record (1968’s Cheap Thrills), and a few scattered concert releases (of which this is the best by a country mile). Capturing a typically ragged, blazingly energetic show, this disc features most of the songs one would expect to hear—their setlist was pretty fixed in these months, emphasizing the material on their new hit record—such as the thrillingly spooky “Summertime”, the bluesy showstopper “Ball and Chain”, and the inevitable but always welcome “Piece of my Heart”. Though there are several moments of disjointed and crunchy discordance and even one too-long-for-comfort section in which one of the guitars falls out of tune, most of what we find here is a very good band at the peak of its powers featuring a throat-shredding vocalist with enough charisma and talent to carry them past any rough spots. 


Recorded some two months before the end of the line for Janis and Big Brother, this concert album is not only the single best live Joplin-related release you can name, but it is also the best sounding record in her entire catalogue. Indeed, the sonic experience is as good a reason as any to pick up this disc. Recorded by Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the now legendary San Francisco-based LSD chemist and psychedelic sound tech, this is actually the first in a new line of releases dubbed Bear’s Sonic Journals, a series about which I am salivating. What separates Bear’s recordings from those of his contemporaries (and even his legions of accolytes and pretenders) is that his (perhaps) LSD-driven embrace of the beauty-in-chaos calamitousness of the psychedelic sound of the mid-to-late 1960s was so pure, and his skill at capturing it so technically ingenious, that sitting here in my living room 45 years and 3000 miles away from this classic show, I am transported and enveloped. Though many tried, no one ever managed to capture this fascinating moment in American rock’n’roll as well as Bear. What a treat to hear this music as he did.

Rating:

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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Big Brother and the Holding Company - Light is Faster Than Sound (Live)
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