Big Brother and the Holding Company – Bear’s Sonic Journal Presents Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968

January 01, 1970



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
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. (The Kentucky navie died in a car
accident last year in his adopted 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.



DOWNLOAD: “Ball and Chain,” “Catch Me Daddy.” MIKE SHANLEY


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