Review: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Live at Winterland ’68
“Live at Winterland ’68” was recorded at an opportune time in the life of Big Brother. In mid April of that year they had recently signed with mega rock agent Albert Grossman, signed a recording contract with Columbia Records, begun the studio sessions that resulted in “Cheap Thrills”, had just returned from their first, and very successful, tour of the East Coast, and had no indication that Janis Joplin would leave the band before the end of the year. They were in the first blush of real national success, they were tired, they were tight, and they were bringing it all back home.
If you are very familiar with Big Brother in general and “Cheap Thrills” in particular two things stand out about the Winterland gig. The 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 track for a single song and then Janis would walk in and do two perfect vocal tracks either one of which was good enough for release. Listening to “Live at Winterland” you can believe it, at least the part about Janis. It’s hard to think of anything that speaks more to the immensity of her talent than that she could lay out pitch perfect versions of these songs every time without sacrificing an iota of the raw emotion and intensity that was her trademark. I don’t know if there’s ever been anyone like her and you can hear it on this recording.
The second thing to notice is the band. They are just terrific. The men’s vocals are not so hot but the rhythm section is tight and the guitar playing is powerful, searing and matches Janis’ level of intensity every step of the way. This is what psychedelic San Francisco guitar rock was all about. In the liner notes Getz says that this is the “best and most accurate recording” of the band he has heard. “This, at long last, is the real deal.” Because the tendency is to listen to Janis first and because her vocals are so similar to the recorded versions it might be easy to miss what the band is doing. Don’t make that mistake. They are burning and it’s the combination of the two (heh), their playing and her vocals, that lifts “Live at Winterland ’68” into the stratosphere. Raw excitement, energy, power, intensity, it’s all here.
Better than any other, this recording shows that what made Big Brother the best band Janis ever sang with was that they were a band, not a star fronting a group of backing musicians. According to the CD, this concert was recorded by “Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company”. This is marketing bullshit designed to sell units on the basis of the “Janis Joplin” brand. It’s not how the band billed themselves, it’s an insult, and it utterly distorts what makes this such a great recording. At this point in time, this is the only CD reviewed on Tuned In To Music where the artist’s name as listed in the title of the review is different from the name as listed on the CD. This is a Big Brother and the Holding Company record no matter the marketing department at Sony/Columbia says.
In some ways, “Live at Winterland ’68” is a heartbreaker. “Cheap Thrills” was released the following August, it sold over a million copies in 30 days, and Janis announced she was leaving the band. Big Brother would never be like this again and hearing this recording brings the loss of Janis’ death back as raw as it was the day I first heard it on the radio. They were so good.
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