Big Brother & Holding Co – Live at Carousel Ballroom 1968 (review)

Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin – Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 (Sony Legacy) review

There’s no denying that Janis Joplin is one of the greatest singers in the history of rock n’ roll.  Yet, where’s the proof? Of the precious few live recordings that have survived over the years, most are either too tame or sloppy (her Woodstock concert falls into the latter category).  Sony/Legacy intends to correct this with Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968, an unbridled look at both Big Brother and Joplin at the absolute peak of their powers, just two months before she left the band.

Anyone familiar with the San Francisco music scene of the mid Sixties knows that there were basically two big venues to play: the Avalon (where Big Brother was the house band) and the original Fillmore (owned by Bill Graham).  But, for a brief time in 1968, a third venue opened up, the Carousel, which had been home to many a big band showcase back in the Forties.  In typical Summer of Love fashion, the club was a joint venture between the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother & the Holding Company.  Not surprising, the musicians found the business side of things difficult and had trouble turning a profit; eventually handing things over to the much savvier Graham, who rechristened it the Fillmore West in July of 1968.  So, this concert from late June was one of the last under the original regime.

The sound on this disc is ferocious.  This may have been recorded in the Summer of Love, but there’s nothing sweet about it.  The band’s energy borders on violent, careening out of control; it’s as if the walls surrounding the club were ready to surrender to the aural onslaught.  Big Brother had developed a reputation as a volatile live band – and this disc is pure evidence.  Be prepared to melt your speakers.

If there’s one thing that Live At the Carousel Ballroom 1968 makes perfectly clear, it’s that Big Brother & the Holding Company were a band, not merely Joplin’s backup musicians.  Guitarist Sam Andrew and bassist Peter Albin’s vocals are just as prominent as Joplin’s, and lead guitarist James Gurley’s other-worldly soloing added another focal point to the band.  In fact, his guitar feedback freakout on “Light is Faster Than Sound” rivals anything Hendrix laid down for sheer craziness.

The band runs through killer versions of many of their most familiar songs – “Summertime” gives Janis a chance to show off her signature squeal, while the guitar work on “Ball and Chain” sounds like it was played by aliens out to attack our planet; this is guitars used as six-stringed weapons.  It’s also interesting to hear the group tackle “Piece of My Heart” to only polite applause (it wouldn’t hit the charts for a couple of months – soi t hadn’t yet become the band’s calling card).

This concert is the first in the series of “sonic journals” recorded by Owsley Stanley, better known as “Bear,” the legendary Grateful Dead soundman, who passed away in an auto accident in 2010.  Be forewarned, the sound of this album is unconventional to say the least – the drums and vocals are in one channel, with the guitars and bass crammed into the other.  But, as long as your speakers aren’t too far apart, things sound fine.  In fact, when played through a set of earbuds, it sounds fantastic.  The producers also decided to leave the concert “as is,” which means there are times when Joplin’s voice is flat, or one of the guitars hits a wrong note, yet this is exactly the way it sounded back in the heat of 1968.  The disc also features a great booklet containing several essays providing insight into the background surrounding this classic recording, and some fantastic photos of Janis and band.

After listening to Live At the Carousel Ballroom 1968, not only will you marvel at just how good Janis Joplin was as a vocalist, you’ll also gain a deeper appreciation for Big Brother as a band.  They may have not been the most precise or polished, yet on energy alone, nobody beats Big Brother & the Holding Company.  –Tony Peters