Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Nine Hundred Nights

“Nine Hundred Nights” is a documentary about Big Brother and the Holding Company that runs for just under an hour.  It’s a weird combination of typical freak footage from the ’60s 900 nightswith what sounds like a pretentious ’60s voice over saying things like “This is the now generation” combined with much more current interviews with the four surviving members of the band, Sam Andrew (guitar), James Gurley (guitar), Peter Albin (bass) and Dave Getz (drums).  I rented the film from Netflix and so know nothing about it’s production other than what I could pick up from watching it.

Viewers who are primarily interested in concert footage are likely to be disappointed as “900 Nights” is almost all talk and the music it contains is mostly in the form of snippets from live performances.  One short segment shows the band in the studio recording “Summertime” for the “Cheap Thrills” album.  For those, like me, who love that song, it is very satisfying to watch them laying down bits of the song exactly as you know it from the album.  There are also four complete songs recorded live included as one of the special features.  If you are unlikely to recognize who is whom in the 60’s footage, watching the first song before you watch the documentary may be helpful as it introduces each member of the band labeled with their name.  In addition there is an audio-only track of an interesting psychedelic guitar jam on “Hall of the Mountain King”.  When they say audio only, they mean audio only – the screen goes blank while the song plays.

The talk includes bits of interviews done with the band in the ’60s along with the current interviews and the goofy voice overs mentioned earlier.  The emphasis is very much on the more current interviews.  I thoroughly enjoyed “900 Nights” because it is mainly taken up with the band members discussing the history of the band from their point of view as being members of band that was focused on music rather than as a bunch of backup musicians for JANIS JOPLIN, SUPERSTAR.  Hearing them talk about the band this way was enormously refreshing not only because it accurately reflects who the band was, at least up until near the end, but it also captures why they were so good.  After the ’67 Monterey Pop Festival when the world outside of San Francisco discovered Janis, it became increasingly fashionable in the music press to dump on the rest of Big Brother as not being good enough for her.  And in one sense, the press was right.  Big Brother wasn’t up to Janis’s level of ability- but neither was anyone else she sang with either.  Joplin was a monumental talent that dominated everyone she played with but she was also a chick singer trying to make it with a band.  That’s how the members of Big Brother knew her and it’s that level of experience that makes their insights so interesting and valuable.  They discuss their music, how she fit into that music when she joined, how she changed the music, and how she grew beyond thier music when she left with, for the most part, a lack of either awe or jealosy that is very refreshing.  Drummer Getz, in particular seems to have an exceptionally ego-less and hence deeply insightful understanding of who they all were and what went on as their musical relationships developed over time.

For me, the Big Brother period of Janis’s short career is far and away the most exciting and interesting.  She did some really terrific things with the Kozmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band but when I want to hear her sing, it’s the Big Brother material I listen to.  Watching this DVD gave me a greater understanding of why that is.  First of all, they were a band.  It wasn’t Janis Joplin and the Munchkins it was Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Second, they were a band that played exciting, exploratory, guitar-based psychedelic rock.  It’s true that, again, up until near the end, they weren’t very professional in the sense that they always hit the changes with precision and always kept the rhythm or tempo from drifting, but they were the kind of band that could launch into blindingly original and exciting playing at any moment.  In an odd way, Janis and Big Brother were an ideal combination because, apparently, she didn’t share their knack for delivering a loose performance.  She nailed it more often than not.  Getz talks about how during the recording of “Cheap Thrills” the band would struggle for hours and hours on end trying to come up with one acceptable take of a song.  And then Janis would walk in, do two vocal takes over the music they had struggled to make, both would be different and both would be great leaving everyone with the problem of having to decide which one to use.  Listening to Janis sing was like watching Lance Armstrong ride the Tour de France or Michael Jordan play basketball with the Bulls – at any moment something absolutely unbelievable could happen.  I think it was this combination that made Big Brother so exciting.  Janis was so good so frequently that the band didn’t have to be, and not having to be the perfect back up band allowed them to play in a manner that brought them to flashes of improvisation and invention that then challenged and drove Janis to levels that no other band did.  The individual member’s musical strengths provided support and cover for the other’s weaknesses, they drove each other to heights each was unlikely to achieve alone, and they were better when playing together than when playing alone.  Sounds just like what a band should be.  Joplin’s blues and the other band members’ psychedelia were twinned driving forces that gave Big Brother’s performances an edge of excitement that was delicious when anticipated and overwhelming when realized.  They were sloppy, they were brilliant, they were a band like no other.  “900 Nights” lets you see that.

Music from Big Brother and the Holding’s Company’s “Cheap Thrills” can be heard on Tuned In To Music Podcast 008 – 1960s San Francisco (Part 2)

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08/09/2007 - Posted by | DVD reviews, music | , ,

3 Comments »

  1. […] first is how similar Janis’ vocals are to the recorded versions.  In the documentary “Nine Hundred Nights” drummer Dave Getz talks about how the band would struggle for hours to produce a useable […]

    Pingback by Review: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Live at Winterland ‘68 « Tuned In To Music | 09/06/2007 | Reply

  2. […] Review: Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin …“Nine Hundred Nights” is a documentary about Big Brother and theHolding …. In the documentary “Nine Hundred Nights“drummer Dave Getz talks about how the … […]

    Pingback by Movies With Numbers in Their Titles » Blog Archive » Review: Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin … | 12/04/2007 | Reply

  3. I really enjoyed reading your article, keep on making such interesting stuff.

    Comment by tateffist | 12/09/2009 | Reply


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