Rock dinosaurs roar

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Rock dinosaurs roar

Live at Winterland '68
Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company
Columbia/Legacy
Do What You Love
Big Brother and the Holding Company
Order both at <http://www.bbhc.com>

Review by Barry Healy

When Janis Joplin ran on stage at the Winterland in San Francisco in April 1968, she was whooping and stamping her foot the way she did when planning a good time. She and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, were at the crest of a wave. Having hit national prominence with a stunning performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, they had signed a major recording contract, linked up with a new, high-powered manager and stormed the country.

They were right in the middle of recording the Cheap Thrills LP, which would go immediately to the top of the charts, stay there for three months and endure as a classic. After a gruelling tour, Joplin and the band came back home for their adoring audience for a brilliant series of shows, the best parts of which are here released for the first time.

Big Brother and the Holding Company was in the forefront of the San Francisco hippie scene. This loose gang of jamming buddies evolved a kind of thrash metal, improvised music that was a favourite at LSD-fuelled events. The discipline that came from supporting a singer when Joplin joined in 1966 created a new amalgam of blues, rock and wall-of-sound guitar music that is instantly recognisable.

Very little of what has been previously released comes close to showing the extraordinary dynamism of this woman, who transformed herself through sheer force of personality, will and talent into an emblem of personal liberation and sexual self-expression for a whole generation.

Here is Janis roaring through rockers like "Combination of the Two", "Down on Me" and "Piece of My Heart", growling through "Ball and Chain" and rewriting the rule book of vocal possibilities on "Summertime".

Joplin came to overshadow the rest of the band, but this CD reveals her as a first-among-equals, drawing scarifying performances out of the musicians to support the emotional intensity of her singing and, in turn, being pushed by them to new heights.

When she hammers away at the consonant in the lines "nothin's going to harm you now" and "now don't you cry", it is mesmeric. All this over a musical figure adapted from Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" — this was blues of a new kind, indeed!

If rock music is the art form of our era, then the interplay between Joplin and guitarist James Gurley on "Ball and Chain" can be counted as one of the high points. Joplin sings the he-done-me-wrong blues with the emphasis on restraint and control. The implicit tears, which the singer is either too strong or despondent to shed in public, fall instead from the guitar in a torrent which overwhelms the listener in a wash of distortion and heartbreak. It is an extraordinary, Wagnerian achievement, putting to shame the guitar screeching of Guns and Roses and Nirvana.

Unfortunately, the good times for Big Brother and the Holding company were short-lived, so Live at Winterland '68 is a memorial to a wonderful moment when an audience and musicians were at one in creating a new sound.

In December 1968, Joplin left to attempt a new direction, a mix of rock and soul with new musicians. With her went her close friend and song writer Sam Andrew, and Big Brother splintered. Peter Albin and David Getz joined Country Joe McDonald, and James Gurley simply retired to the desert. The band reunited for a short period (and two more LPS) before collapsing in 1972.

Joplin's new music never jelled, partly because she, Andrew and many of the band members were concentrating on heroin habits. Joplin overdosed in 1970, never having reached her full potential, while Sam Andrew lingered with heroin until cleaning up in 1975.

The band re-formed in 1986 and recruited Lisa Battle as singer. When they advertised for a vocalist, they were inundated by Joplin clones but wisely opted for a break with the past. Do What You Love, their first record in 27 years, shows that while they are rock dinosaurs, they can still roar.

The CD kicks off with some good, fierce, spacey rock in "Take Off", slips into jazz/reggae with "Save Your Love" and then reworks some old Big Brother favourites ("I Need a Man to Love" and "Women is Losers") that have a slightly jazzier feel.

Re-recording some of Joplin's signature songs with a new singer is a brave act, but it works. Battle's voice has none of Joplin's trademark whisky rasping but packs as much emotional punch.

At 31 minutes, it is one of the shortest CDS I've come across. But, never mind, it is a great sample of the new Big Brother and a harbinger of the future of wall-of-sound guitar noise.