EVEN CHEAPER THRILLS Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company

A thrilling archival release containing the inimitable sonic imprint of
soundman (and LSD guru) Owsley “Bear” Stanley
puts the ‘60s San Fran legends in full focus.

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

 

The term “epic” gets thrown around
loosely when it comes to the vintage rock songs. But one that deserves such a
designation, or set the gold standard, was Big Brother and the Holding
Company’s version of “Ball and Chain” on their Cheap Thrills album, released by Columbia in 1968. From the opening
howl of James Gurley’s overdriven guitar to the slow burn of Janis Joplin’s
vocals, it was a high watermark for white hippie blues, which has rarely been
achieved since. Their performance of it at the Monterey Pop Festival might be almost
its equal – there’s a reason the film of the festival cuts to Cass Elliot
mouthing, “Wow, that’s really heavy,” right after. But the posthumous version
from Joplin in Concert with the Full
Tilt Boogie Band lacks the sonic punch and is memorable more for Janis’ rap
about “Why is half the world still crying and the other half is still crying
too, mannnn?

 

The recently released (and verbosely
titled) Bear’s Sonic Journal Presents Big
Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, Live at the Carousel
Ballroom
1968 (Columbia/Legacy)
posits a different argument. Here, “Ball and Chain” follows the same
arrangement as the one on Cheap Thrills (which was also recorded at the same venue after it became the Fillmore West).
The song also packs the same wallop, with Gurley peeling the paint off the wall
and Joplin taking ownership of Big Mama
Thornton’s tune. It leaves you wondering if the band was this hot on a nightly
basis. No wonder this music felt like a revolution was happening, motivating
all that free love in the first place. This was epic.

 

Or maybe the band just had a run of
good nights.

 

 

 

 

Either way it’s evaluated, this
current set captures a moment where everyone
was firing on all cylinders, no one was in danger of a come-down, and that chick
from Port Arthur, Texas was about to take the world by storm.

 

This complete concert, plus one song
from a previous evening, comes from the “Sonic Journals” of Owsley “Bear” Stanley. The soundman for the Grateful Dead, he was
installed at the Carousel which was briefly run as a cooperative by the Dead,
Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother. According to
this album’s detailed essays Bear had unique ideas about live sound, which led
venues to include stage monitors in their set-up, and he fueled the obsessive
taping of Grateful Dead shows. (He died in a car accident last year in his
native country of Australia.)

 

Those concepts
are apparent from the opening moments of this album. One channel features all
the guitars, while the other contains drums and vocals. An essay explains the
“right” way to listen to the mix, by moving both speakers together. With no
effects of any kind on the voices, the picture is almost too clear, especially
when it comes to the falsetto “woo woo” backing vocals on “Combination of the
Two.” At the same time, Bear must have been doing his job because the members
of Big Brother, all of whom either sang lead or at least back-up at some point,
stay on pitch for the whole set.

 

That comfort gave them the ability to
rock out, which they do with ease. Gurley allegedly took inspiration from John
Coltrane in his solos and while his prowess might not be in the same league, he
pushes the energy level to great heights. “Summertime” has a strong example of
controlled energy, where he and fellow guitarist Sam Andrew work around each
other and maneuver in tandem without getting in Joplin’s
way.

 

 

 

Rather than being a vehicle for
Joplin, or having her as an extra ornament in the band’s presentation, most of the songs find her integrated with Andrew’s
harmonies or vice-versa, making them really seem like a hard-edged counterpoint
to Jefferson Airplane’ amplified folk. The dynamic drop in “Catch Me Daddy”
includes some steamy moans and pleas from Joplin (“I gotta have it/ ‘cuz I need it,”) proving that the
sexual side was there, which probably came off as threatening to both the
hippie boys and Hells Angels in the audience.

 

Not every cut on the album is tightly
focused. It wouldn’t be 1968 without at least one overly long blues jam. But
most of the time, the band keeps it tight, which makes a great listen, and the
music gets complemented by the elaborate histories of both the band and Bear
which appear in the booklet.

 

[Photo Credit: Baron Wolman]

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