[6 July 2009]
Columbia/Legacy commemorates the 40th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s appearance at the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair and her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, after departing from Big Brother and the Holding Company with a two-fer entitled Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience. The title connotes peace, love, and flowers and all those groovy things the fest was supposed to stand for as a cultural beacon. The reality of Janis at Woodstock was a much different experience.
Joplin’s many biographers have noted that the singer was not stoned on pot or tripping on LSD like many in the crowd at the festival. Instead, she was shooting heroin and drinking heavily during the 10-hour wait before she took the stage. She died of an overdose about a year later. Her last years were not happy ones.
That said, even a drugged out Joplin gave energetic live performances. She truly came alive and electric on stage, which is one of the main reasons she still enjoys such a legendary reputation as an artist. Joplin offered everything to her audiences.
A complete set of Joplin at Woodstock has never been available because of its ragged nature. In fact, not a single song was included in the original Woodstock documentary film or soundtrack, despite Joplin’s stellar reputation, although the 25th anniversary director’s cut includes her performance of “Work Me, Lord”. Joplin and her new back-up group, the Kozmic Blues Band, are not always in sync, but the truth is she’s working hard and making great, soulful music. Joplin at Woodstock is wild, wooly, and wonderful. She may be in pain and engaging in heavy drug use, but Joplin lets it all out with verve and gusto.
Joplin sings lead on nine out of the ten tracks here. The Kozmic Blues Band play Stax-style horn riffs behind her as if she were Otis Redding. Joplin’s love for that kind of rhythm and blues comes across in her powerful renditions as she alternately wails and cries, shouts and murmurs, speeds up the tempo and then slows it down dramatically, and engages in all kinds of heartfelt tomfoolery. She’s willing to try anything, and then try it again just a little bit harder baby, to please her audience.
The song selections vary from those her fans would already know from her Big Brother days, like “Summertime”, “Piece of My Heart”, and “Ball and Chain”, to new ones from her then-forthcoming release, such as “Kozmic Blues” and a cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. Joplin engages the Woodstock crowd in empathetic repartee—listening here one might think she was playing an intimate club rather than for a mass audience—as she tells them, “I don’t mean to be preachy, but we ought to remember, and that means promoters, too, that music is for grooving, man, not for putting yourself through bad changes. You don’t have to take anyone’s shit, man, just to like music, you know what I mean? So if you’re getting more shit than you deserve, you know what to do about it, man? It’s just music, man. Music’s supposed to be different than that.” Indeed, in the voice of a talent like Joplin in concert, music is different. It’s redemption, salvation, deliverance, release, and emancipation all at once.
The sound on the re-release of I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! is beautifully re-mastered. While the album received mixed reviews upon its original release in 1969, the music holds up remarkably well. Joplin expressively handles herself well, and the material is continually varied and interesting, from the old girl group hit “Maybe” to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” to her self-penned Texas blues number “One Good Man”. The troubles she may have had with the Kozmic Blues Band live are not present in the studio, and certain special guests like Mike Bloomfield on guitar play on some cuts.
Joplin may not fit the Woodstock myth, as she and her music were always much more grounded in troubles than good times. But the reality of Joplin at the Woodstock Festival is more compelling than any fairy tale. And the album she released just a few months afterwards shows that she was still making excellent music.