Monday 16 April 2018

Janis Joplin: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

You can read more in 'Little Girl Blue - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Janis Joplin' now available in e-book form by clicking here


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! Given how short her career was, Janis performed one hell of a lot of live shows: around 65 under her own name or with the Kozmik Blues and Full Tilt Boogie Bands, plus a whopping three hundred or so as part of Big Brother and The Holding Company (who often played twice in one day). It’s a real shame that Janis never lived long enough to release a live album (at least in her lifetime, as a finalised part of her canon) because the difference between her studio recordings and her live recordings are often the difference between night and day. On album Janis’ perfectionist side peeks through (well, maybe not the rushed first album but the other three – and yes part of ‘Cheap Thrills’ was indeed live, I grant you), but on stage it’s all power, all emotion, all adrenalin. Luckily Janis had enough fans who smuggled all sorts of tape recorders to her shows, even in her pre-fame coffee house days, which means that if you look long and hard enough (both in record shops and unofficially via, say, Youtube) you’ll find that her live career was more comprehensively covered than most of our stars. Every song in every show is different too, with Janis unable to do anything except wear her heart on her sleeve – some shows are happy, some are sad, some are sheer unadulterated misery depending on what is happening in her life at any particular time. We can’t list them al (and many of the best gigs are out on ‘Blow My Blues Away’ anyway. However here are five gigs that might be considered amongst her most important.
1) Where: Top Of The Tangent Club, Palo Alto, California When: April 5th 1963 Why: First Gig Setlist: Unknown
Janis had been singing for friends and family and borrowing tape recorders from everyone she knew since her college days, with her first ever appearance in front of people being Woodrow Wilson Junior High’s Glee Club in 1957 and her first ‘adult’ performance being at a loosely organised ‘Hootenanny’ on New Year’s Eve 1959 in Port Arthur (the first time many of her friends realised she could actually ‘sing’). Janis also performed a few gigs as a ‘guest spot’ across 1962 with her pal Chet Helms and may well have sung a few songs while working as a waitress in a Louisiana bowling alley in Summer 1962, but for shy Janis this is her first time up on stage on her own with nowhere to hide and the first moment when music was a ‘career’ rather than a ‘hobby’ you might say).At this point in time Janis is twenty-one-years old and very unknown – her Texas accent and upper class ways probably made her stand out a mile in the seedier end of California. In truth we don’t know much about this gig – or the string that followed – and Janis was just one of many folk singers trying to make the transition to rock and roll in this period. However there was always quite a crossover between folk and blues and Janis would have stood out even this early on by hurling covers of Howlin’ Wolf, Jelly Roll Morton , Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey songs into the mix too. Janis is, at this point in her life, spending long periods of time unemployed, gaining the odd short-term job to fuel her growing drink and drug use and spending much of her time begging on the streets – as a result music was a really useful means for her to make money, any money, however little it paid (in contrast to many AAA bands who appeared at coffee houses for ‘kicks’ and didn’t need the money). In other words Janis probably took requests too, however unsuitable, though the bulk of her set was probably much as we hear it on her 1962-1965 tapes. Hope is just around the corner though – this very same month she meets Peter Albin, future bass player with Big Brother and The Holding Company and vows to stay in contact as much as she can. Janis’ ‘big breakthrough’ in the summer goes wrong though: invited to appear at the Monterey Folk Festival (four years before the rock and roll one that will make her name), she has to decline, because she’s just been arrested for shop lifting, not to mention coming off worst in a street bawl and nearly dying in a motorcycle accident! This was, you could say, a busy time for Janis...
2) Where: Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco When: June 10th or 11th 1966 Why: First Gig With Big Brother Setlist: Unknown but a set from a week later includes the following: [35] Let The Good Times Roll [36]  I Know You Rider [37] Moanin' At Midnight [38] Hey Baby [58] Down On Me [39] Whisperman [56] Women Is Losers [40] Blow My Mind [41] Ooh My Soul! [66] Ball and Chain [50a] Coo Coo [42] Gutra's Garden [47] Harry
This is – maybe – where Janis’ career and Big Brother’s coincides, at the venue of their favourite hunting ground where they were the unofficial ‘house band’ and where they will go on to perform many miraculous gigs together (some fans dispute the date by the way and some even list it as the 6th June; in truth few people at the time would have been paying attention!) Big Brother had been successful locally and had already made a name for themselves with their fiery improvisation moments and were talked about a lot, but all in the band were agreed that they needed a lead singer – or better still a ‘front man’. It was Janis’ old friend and Big Brother manager Chet Helms who first suggested the idea of a ‘front woman’ instead; at the time Janis had been drifting as an unsuccessful solo act and had failed an audition to join ‘The 13th Floor Elevators’. The band recall that their first re-action was defensive: they were already one of the big quartet of bands in San Francisco up until that time and this was a big vchange in their sound. Sam Andrew was concerned when he first saw Janis who ‘didn’t look like a hippie yet and ion fact looked like my mother’, Janis wanting to make such a good first impression that she’d gone back to her Port Arthur roots and dressed up nice and pretty, the way other girl singers did back then. For her part she feared that Big Brother were going to be an all-boy’s club that wouldn’t leave her space to be herself. It took about a year for both singer and band to truly melt with each other and the first re-actions to gigs was more ‘Wha?’ than ‘Wow?’ But both sides persevered, with Big Brother slowly losing their early original material they’d written for themselves (a huge chunk of which was performed here) and turning it around to the band originals that will make up the first album, plus [66] ‘Ball and Chain’, a song Janis had already been performing solo on occasion but could now fully go for with a band behind her. In time audiences will love it, with this gig spookily almost a year to the day before the ‘Monterey’ break through, but at the time they weren’t sure; this is however, a key gig – the first time that voice was heard in front of that band. Oh for a time machine to go back and see it...
3) Where: Monterey Pop Festival When: June 17th 1967  Why: Breakthrough! Setlist: [58] Down On Me [61] Combination Of The Two [47] Harry [67] Roadblock [66] Ball and Chain
The organisers were doing Big Brother a favour. Though the band had been offered a record contract by local San Franciscan label ‘Mainstream’ already (bought up by Columbia in their haste to sign Janis following this gig), nobody was talking about them yet in the same breath as the Airplane or The Dead or even Quicksilver Messenger Service. Only San Francisco really knew this band before the gig – but everyone from around the globe was talking about them afterwards. The camera crews were told to go on a break after Chet Helms decided not to let his band be filmed ‘for free’ and nobody protested it: after all, not many of the organisers even knew who they were. Given what was generally considered the ‘lowest’ slot on the middle day of three (second, after Canned Heat and before yet another future Janis boyfriend in Country Joe and his Fish), Big Brother were introduced, rather rudely, by Chet who recalled his ‘hitch-hikes across the country’ with band and singer and that they were ‘four gentlemen and one great great broad’ (both sides of that statement will be disputed in time!) The band though owned the stage with a well-controlled and disciplined yet still deeply exciting run through all sorts of songs, most of them originals. Intriguingly the band seem to have disowned their first and rather hurried album even before it’s out in shops (Columbia will pounce on the album after seeing the response the band get at this gig and buy the rights up) with only the opening song ‘Down On Me’ taken from there. ‘Harry’ too is an oddity, soon to be abandoned by the band, but which nicely shows off their playful side at this generally playful gig while ‘Roadblock’, attempted later in the studio, will be abandoned when the band can’t play it with quite as much flair as they did this day. The reason the band stand out, though, are the previews of songs to be heard on their second album ‘Cheap Thrills’, Sam’s ‘Combination Of The Two’ and the song’s lone cover ‘Ball and Chain’. Both are so stunning that the crowd, treated to folky frivolities on the Friday, are overjoyed at having something deep to sink their musical ears into – it seems odd that the blues brings so much joy, but makes much more sense when you see hear the performance and just what it means to everyone in Big Brother, not just Janis. The band are hastily brought back on the Sunday night too for a reprise, mostly for the sake of the cameras but partly so that the band can soak up the limelight. Janis, so in control on the Saturday, is in truth rather overwhelmed, but no matter: this is her festival and Big Brother’s and life will never be the same for her again.
4) Where: Stax/Volt ‘Yuletide Thing’, Memphis When: December 20th 1968 Why: First Gig Without Big Brother Setlist: Unknown, but gig from a month later includes: [93] Raise Your Hand [77] As Good As You've Been To This World [75] Maybe [63] Summertime [78] To Love Somebody 'You're The Only One Who Really Knows' [28] Walk Right In [81] Work Me Lord [64] Piece Of My Heart [66] Ball and Chain
It was probably a good idea for the still-unrehearsed Kozmik Blues band to make their debut when everyone was drunk and/or merry. As part of her agreement with leaving the band, Janis worked out all the previously booked Big Brother shows which ran right up until December 1st. That didn’t leave Janis long to rehearse and put the band together and early performances were rough in the extreme, with all-new songs to learn, all but one of which will appear on ‘I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmik Blues Again Mama’ alongside three Big Brother favourites. To be honest, I haven’t heard one comment from anyone who remembers being at this soul review show, which suggests that most people – including the band – were too out of it to care. A second gig in a more sober setting the following night in a multi-band bill in Memphis was seen, though, and was widely panned. The January 1969 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine spent a whole article explaining how Janis had ‘lost it’ without Big Brother (a follow-up even refers to her as the ‘Judy Garland of rock and roll’, blaming her poor show – rather unfairly – on substance abuse) and the critical tide all followed. However the Kozmik Blues Band were better than reputation suggests: the bootlegs reveal that while the band were never tight, even in a Big Brother kind of a way, their highs got more frequent as the gigs went on and by the end of a sprawling 1969 tour (which took in Janis’ only European gigs) were turning into a very worthy band indeed. This is, you could say, the turning point in Janis’ career and it took her death to be the ‘critic’s darling’ again. Note the presence in the set-list of ‘You’re The Only One Who Really Knows’, a Nick Gravenites tune the band will perform at almost all their gigs but which won’t make the final album.
5) Where: Harvard Stadium, Boston, Massachusetts When: August 12th 1970 Why: Final Gig Setlist: [92] Tell Mama [99] Half Moon [102] Mercedes Benz [100] My Baby [74] Try (Just A Little Bit Harder) [75] Maybe [63] Summertime [87] Full Tilt
Astonishingly, both audio and pictures exist for what turned out to be Janis’ last live show – a gig which at the time was just one of many, a tour not ended so much as put on hold to enable the singer to work on ‘Pearl’ in the studio. A stunning set of photographs, seemingly taken from the front row, also exist and – together with the murky sound – they make for an eerie study. Did Janis seem more upset than usual? Was she visibly or audibly out of her head on booze and drugs? I’d say not. The Janis we have here has by now had four years of experience working a crowd and Janis is bursting with life and energy, ripping into the single best performance of ‘Tell Mama’ out there (odd that it didn’t make the final running order for ‘Pearl’, then) and her energy beaming out from even layers of murk on bootleg (and even the ‘cleaned up’ edition released as ‘Last Concert’). This is all the more astonishing given that the band have been delayed a couple of hours and the audience are restless – as the emcee announces at the start, the band’s equipment had been stolen the night before and they were hustling about trying to find new instruments. The band had been left to twiddle their thumbs backstage – an ad hoc stage that, weirdly enough, some of the audience up high could see (with comments from fans that Janis spent most of a ninety minute delay stock still, reflecting in her own head and spookily calm – the ‘little girl’ to Janis’ ‘pearl’ maybe). The Full Tilt Band do sound slightly rusty when they hit the stage, but Janis, the calm at the eye of the storm despite her vocal power and energy, is fully in command and rarely sounded better (Monterey?) ‘Yeah?’ she answers a heckler at one point. ‘I’ll take you on, one at a time if I have to!’ before launching into that famous cackle. Sadly the band only perform a short show, but then that was par for the course back in 1969 and Janis had it written into her contract that she only had enough energy to perform at her maximum for forty minutes. For once in her career Janis isn’t using the tour to plug a particular album – she already has big plans for ‘Pearl’ but is well aware that the album most fans can buy in shops is still ‘Kozmik Blues’ so we get a neat combination of both, with old favourite ‘Summertime’ the very final song that Janis ever sang (‘Full Tilt’ being a ‘play-out’ instrumental for her backing band). It’s a particularly thrilling performance, with Janis improvising a lot on a song she knows better than the others in the set (‘She’s so good looking to me babe, so no no no don’t ya cry!’ being her last words on stage).  We never wanted her to go – and she really shouldn’t have gone so soon – but it’s as good a way out as any. 


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) The ‘difficulty’ with this book is that Janis didn’t write that many of her own songs – and those aren’t usually the ones covered. It’s also fair to say that even though Janis made songs like [64] ‘Piece Of My Heart’ and [66] ‘Ball and Chain’ her own, they were strictly cover versions of songs made famous long before she was born. We have, however, found three songs well worth listening to – including two originals and one song written for her by her friend Nick Gravenites and given to his ‘other’ band to sing instead...
1) [95] Buried Alive In The Blues (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, 'Better Days' 1973)
It’s a real shame that Janis never lived to record that one last vocal intended for the ‘Pearl’ album. I don’t think it’s just morbid fascination but I’ve always been fascinated by this song, which is effectively suicide by music and which would have been the perfect ‘coda’ to Janis’ career. You see, it’s also a fantastic song, with Nick Gravenites clearly understanding Janis’ personality in this angsty soul-bearing song about disappearing inside a dark hole unable to ‘laugh’ or live the life other mere mortals ‘do’. For all that, though, the arrangement of the backing track as released on Pearl (as [95b]) sounds as if Janis asked her musicians to put a ‘twist’ on the music, to make it into a happy-go-lucky comedy song despite itself, laughing at herself. Characteristically, her one time beaux is far more ‘po-faced’ and sings the tale as a lament, not suiting the song as well as Janis would, with a roar rather than a purr. Still, though, the atmosphere in the room is electric, with Janis having died only three years before, and some of Gravenites’ words are beery clever: ‘Sunday morning everybody’s in bed, I’m out in the streets talking out of my head, this old brick wall ain’t heard a word I said, I’m buried alive in the blues!’
2) [102] Mercedes Benz (Taj Mahal, 'Senor Blues' 1999)
Equally, I love the roughhouse but fun blues of Taj Mahal (but sadly discovered his music too late to give him a whole book of his own – maybe next time? If I can recover from doing this lot?!) His career started maybe a little too late for Janis to notice him (his big chance, as the opening act for the ‘Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’ in December 1968 fell apart when that band decided they’d been upstaged by The Who and wouldn’t show their faces on TV that yuletide after all). Janis would surely have loved the fact that a respected black blues musician was covering one of her songs, but typically for Taj he doesn’t make things easy for himself and goes for ‘quirky’ over ‘authentic’ and even sings the first verse of this song a capella, showing just how rough and weathered his voice had become by the time of his fifties at the end of the 20th century. IT’s a very ‘Janis’ thing to hear what was once the biggest comedy moment in the Joplin songbook delivered as a full-on blues lament – but somehow, thanks to the respect of the singer for the material, it somehow works. The finger-picking behind the next two verses is sublime. 
3) [79] Kozmik Blues (Katie Melua, 'Live At The 02 Arena' 2008)
By contrast, I don’t generally think much of Katie Melua, who is to Janis what a whisper is to a roar and whose pretty, commercial tones are no match for raw power and feeling. And yet Katie’s had a run of cover songs recently, mostly from one of her many live shows, that prove that she can really ‘get’ this music when she tries. ‘Kozmik Blues’ is an incredibly hard song to sing – it has no chorus, not many words and a lot of pain, so for anyone to even attempt this song gets several marks in my book (this book?) Much more than that, though, Norah ‘lives’ this song, slowing it down even from Janis’ version and sounding as if she’s straining at the leash for life to ‘let her go’. Yes it’s a prettier version than Janis’ and can’t compare, with the vocal turning this into every other Katie Melu song out there. But that guitar sound, the chatterbox phrases (that go in such a different direction to Janis’ slowed down lines) and the gutsy roar into full power when Katie finally stops learning the song and sings it from her heart is powerful indeed. We might make a blues singer out of her yet...


'Big Brother And The Holding Company' (1967)

'Cheap Thrills' (1968)

'I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama!' (1969)

'Pearl' (1970)
Non-Album Songs 1963-1970
Surviving TV Clips 1967-1970
Live/Compilation/Outtakes Sets 1965-1970

Essay: Little Pearl Blue – Who Was The Real Janis?


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