Live At The Carousel Ballroom captures Big Brother And The Holding Company at a pivotal moment in the band’s history. It’s June of 1968, about two months before the release of Cheap Thrills, and two and a half months before Janis Joplin would announce her departure from the band to pursue a solo career. They’re simultaneously on their way to the top and on their way out. But on this night, they sound completely unified, playing at the peak of their abilities and ready to show their stuff to the world.
Conventional wisdom holds that Big Brother would never have escaped garage-band obscurity if not for their superstar lead singer, and certainly none of the records they made after Joplin’s departure made much of an impact. But the fact remains that for a while, they did have her, and she had them, and the records they made together would inform what rock music should sound like for decades to come. They don’t sound like a singer with anonymous backing players, they sound like a band.
While Joplin is the undisputed star on “Piece Of My Heart”, her intensity is matched by James Gurley’s guitar violence, one of the rawest and toothiest sounds to come out of the SF scene this side of Blue Cheer. At its most frantic, the band sounds like a cousin to Joplin’s Texas homeboys the 13th Floor Elevators, with a more unchained sound than heard on either of their studio albums. It’s a little bit clunkier when showing restraint, but still capable of a lovely, lyrical swing through Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Again, while it’s Joplin’s vocal at front and center, the breezy waltz-time arrangement behind her, punctuated by Gurley’s tearful laments and Sam Andrew’s gentle rhythm playing, isn’t something that any old crew of session players could have come up with.
The chemistry between them is strong, and Joplin is in absolutely perfect voice throughout, interpreting some of the lines differently from their familiar versions. At the climax of “Ball And Chain” as seen in the iconic Monterey Pop film, she tortures that final word until it breaks under the pressure; in the same moment at the Carousel performance, the word crawls out from her lower register; she sounds resigned to her torment instead of angry. This reinvention of a single word alters the song’s whole emotional arc from the one you were expecting, a testament to just how powerful a singer she was.
Joplin’s headlong dive into solo stardom with the Kozmic Blues Band in 1969 turned out to be quite a downer, literally, and she spent that year plunging deep into death drugs and tearing holes in the reputation for greatness that she’d established just a year earlier. I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama was widely considered a let-down. At Woodstock that summer, just two years after her star-making performance at Monterey, she sang so poorly that none of her performances made the cut for the feature film. When producer Paul Rothchild was approached in the summer of 1970 to work on her second solo record, he almost declined the job, believing her voice was already lost to abuse.
Rothchild was eventually convinced, after seeing a relatively cleaned-up Janis and her new crew of enthusiastic young guns in the Full Tilt Boogie Band on a west coast tour. Sessions for the album were in their final stages when Joplin died in October of 1970, and the posthumously released Pearl – now available as a 2-disc Deluxe Edition titled The Pearl Sessions – would become the most massive success of her career. The hippie jams are gone, and the band is backing the singer instead of competing with her for attention, more like an Aretha or Etta James album. As a huge fan of Big Brother I can’t help but miss that tension, that constant raising of the bar that results from intense competition. It’s a much more commercial record and it’s intended to be.
But there’s no question that Joplin was moving into new territory as a vocalist, and that she needed supporting players that could move with her. The additional disc of unreleased outtakes show the band experimenting with tempos and textures, finessing the groove on the intro to “Move Over” until they have it dialed in. On early demo takes of “Me And Bobby McGee,” you can hear the evolution of Joplin’s vocal performance as she explores different dynamics before arriving at the take that became her biggest hit. While it’s not always enjoyable to listen to these sets that present take after take of the same song – usually revealing that the one used on the album was the best one anyway – the versions here are revealing and eminently listenable. Those who have heard the album a million times and memorized every nuance in the vocals will hear some surprising alternate interpretations that transform the meaning of the lyrics, and you can’t ask for more than that from any collection of studio leftovers.