Live At Winterland '68
Legacy Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/18/1998
With the exception of one or two of her hits, I can honestly say I've not been a big fan of Janis Joplin. I don't know why this is, but I've never had a major drawing to pick up her whole discography. Some years ago, I even decided to pick up a copy of Cheap Thrills by Big Brother And The Holding Company, a band with which Joplin sang in the late '60s. I don't remember my exact opinion of it, but it hasn't left the storage of the Pierce Archives since.
Now, 30 years after they were recorded, two shows of Big Brother And The Holding Company with Joplin leading the band have surfaced on Live At Winterland '68. Not only are the shows in pristine shape, but they also allow the listener to peek in on a band being shaped by the times it lived in - and it allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for Joplin.
The album could literally be split down the middle of its 14 tracks; although I could be wrong, I think it's safe to say that each seven-song group is the set that Big Brother performed at Winterland that particular evening. (It accounts for the two different versions of "Down On Me" that appear on this album - and it is interesting to hear the differences in the song between using it as a set opener and as a set closer.)
Most of the songs are sung by Joplin, though on a few cuts, guitarists James Gurley and Sam Andrew and bassist Peter Albin take over the lead throat slot. (Drummer David Getz only provides background vocals throughout the album.) And while Joplin was no diva vocal-wise, she made up in charisma and emotion what she might have lacked in style; just check out how she could turn a hoarse scream into a whisper almost effortlessly at different points in the album.
If only it were so easy to say which of the two nights was the better set. The show from April 12, 1968 includes a raucous performance of "Combination Of The Two," and an impassioned "I Need A Man To Love". "Easy Rider," with Gurley on lead vocals, is a weak number; the bass sounds out of tune with the guitars (something I picked up during Albin's bass solo), and Gurley delivers a Dylan-like recitation of the body of the song. It just doesn't work.
However, other performances from that night like "Farewell Song" and "Flower In The Sun" turn out to be pleasant surprises, and are just as enjoyable as Big Brother's best-known song "Piece Of My Heart".
The second evening's show features "Piece Of My Heart," which must have been a relatively new song to the band, as its performance is tentative at times. It does, however, give me an appreciation for the original track - I can no longer write Big Brother off as a trippy band who weren't a tight-knit group of musicians. If anything, their loose sound betrayed the tightness of their rhythm section. The two longest performances on the disc, "Light Is Faster Than Sound" and "Ball And Chain," turn out to be the best on the album.
Live At Winterland '68 is especially noteworthy for the quality of these shows. If they did any type of doctoring to these tapes to clean them up after 30 years, you can hardly notice; it almost sounds like you're in front of the stage dancing to these numbers.
One nagging question does pop up: With Joplin long dead, will there be any interest in this release? I sure hope so; what Live At Winterland '68 does for any listener is preserve a slice of psychedelic history, as well as the growing pains of one of the biggest bands of the time. It also serves as a much better introduction to both Big Brother and Joplin than any other album in either's discography will uncover.
Live At Winterland '68 is a unique find in an era of haphazard reissues and discoveries. It is an album that breaks new ground, creates a new level of interest in the band, and most importantly, tops the original material hands down.