Journey back with me to 1968, will you? Your time machine is courtesy Owsley “Bear” Stanley, visionary sound engineer and renowned LSD chemist. But you don’t need any lysergic acid to enjoy the music contained on the little silver disc known as Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 (Columbia/Legacy 88697 96409 2, 2012), billed as the first release from Bear’s Sonic Journals. That said, a little Southern Comfort probably wouldn’t hurt. (Or a toke or two, as per the suggestion of Stanley’s son Starfinder in the sleeve notes.) But the music as heard at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom nearly 44 years ago just might be mind-altering enough. It captures Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company holding court two months before their breakup. Like all good things, neither Joplin’s Big Brother line-up nor the Carousel lasted, but the band’s fiery blend of blues and rock – a combination of the two, if you will – sounds no less exciting today than it must have that Sunday night in June ’68.
This is music too big to be contained by an iPod. As per Bear’s specific instructions, the best way to enjoy the perfect storm that is Live at the Carousel Ballroom is to push your right and left speakers close together. This will enable you to hear the music via a “single point sound system” (as it would have been heard from the audience at the Carousel) rather than hearing Janis’ vocals and Dave Getz’s drums on the left and everything else – Sam Andrew and James Gurley’s guitars, Peter Albin’s bass – on the right. Trust me; for full tilt musical pyrotechnics, you’ll want to crank up the stereo rather than listening through earbuds or your laptop speakers! And play it loud. The sound here is warm, natural and immediate.
Every track from Side One of 1968’s Columbia studio debut Cheap Thrills is given a live airing: the originals “Combination of the Two” and “I Need a Man to Love,” the theatrical classic “Summertime” and of course, the hit “Piece of My Heart.” (“Ball and Chain” from Cheap Thrills also appears.) The band reached back to its debut album for “Light is Faster than Sound,” “Call on Me,” “Down on Me” and “Coo Coo,” the latter of which was originally a single release before being added to the Columbia reissue of the original Mainstream pressing of the LP. “Call on Me” is actually heard twice here, once as a bonus track from the June 22 show, and its inclusion serves as a reminder that Big Brother could, and did, attack a song from multiple perspectives. The performance offers musical and vocal variations from the version in the main set.
Read all about it, after the jump!
Listening to the young, magnetic and impossibly assured Joplin, just a little over two years away from her death at 27, it’s easy to see why she’s influenced a legion of imitators. Joplin attacks this material from the heart and sounds positively unbridled throughout the album’s fourteen tracks, thirteen from the June 23 set and one from June 22. George Gershwin (another titanic talent who died tragically young) likely never envisioned his Porgy and Bess lullaby, “Summertime,” as the bluesy maelstrom created by Joplin and Big Brother. But it’s hard to believe that he would have objected either, seeing the sheer power of the band’s searing, ominous rendition. Joplin sang DuBose Heyward’s poetry from the same primal place she interpreted all music, with visceral feeling taking precedence over all else. Her catholic approach to music explains why she could be equally believable singing Gershwin, Brill Building pop (yes, “Piece of My Heart” was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bang Records’ Bert Berns!), country, soul and blues.
The Joplin/Andrew co-write “I Need a Man to Love” is a slow-burning blues wail, but Joplin is so assured, brimming with swagger, that even if she doesn’t really need a man, few would stand in the way of her desire! “No, it just can’t be,” indeed. Sam Andrew’s “Call on Me” is a (relatively) quieter moment, but the emotions are still vividly explosive. “Piece of My Heart” may be even more soulful in the live version here though the familiar licks are present.
Not that this is solely Joplin’s show. Big Brother and the Holding Company was very much a band, and that ethos comes through loud and clear here. Sam Andrew, naturally, makes the biggest impression, chiming in with both duet and backing vocals, but the other members of Big Brother each shine. “Combination of the Two,” the electrifying opening salvo from the group, offers not only Joplin and Andrew gleefully trading vocals, but an exciting guitar solo from Gurley. Despite the fact that jams were in the DNA of Big Brother and many of the other San Francisco bands of the era, many of the songs heard here are lean and mean. (The near-seven minute take on “I’m Mad (Mad Man Blues)” is one exception, and “Coo Coo” and a nine-minute “Ball and Chain,” with Joplin’s raw, pained exhortations, also get extended workouts.) Peter Albin’s “Light is Faster than Sound” shows the band’s intuitive interplay while “Coo Coo” features his bass to titanic effect. On many of these tracks, Joplin adapts her voice to the role of another instrument in the band rather than forcing it out front.
The 1998 Legacy release Live at Winterland 1968 preserved a San Francisco gig recorded in April 1968, just two months before this Carousel Ballroom stand. The new album shares ten songs with its predecessor, but the performance at the Carousel is more confident, more muscular and ultimately more vibrant. Perhaps something was simply in the air that June evening! Two tracks, “Flower in the Sun” and “Summertime,” first appeared on the posthumous 1972 Columbia release Joplin in Concert, but only now has the entire concert been revealed as Bear originally intended while recording it. Though the emphasis that night was clearly on music, you’ll hear some choice you are there banter and announcements including a warning to the Hell’s Angels in the house: “The policemen are going to be on your bikes in a few minutes to tow them away; they’re outside now!”
The colorful 28-page booklet, housed alongside the CD in a digipak, is the kind of comprehensive affair this concert deserves. It includes introductions by both the late Bear Stanley and his wife Sheilah, as well as a valuable historical note by Jaan Uhelszki. Starfinder Stanley, Bob Scott, Rhoney Stanley, Joel Selvin and John Meyer all contribute essays on the album’s sound and Bear’s unique recording process. With any luck, further trawls through Bear’s Sonic Journals will be forthcoming. Live at the Carousel Ballroom takes us back to a period where anything truly was possible, and five men and women armed with nothing but their voices and some instruments could likely expand one’s consciousness as potently as, well, Owsley “Bear” Stanley’s LSD.