Sunday, May 17, 2015
Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin
Here is my tribute to Sam Andrew, guitarist for Big Brother, who died back in February. I previously mentioned my great love for this band in my post on their debut album "Big Brother and the Holding Company" so I won't rehash it here. Their music has been very important to me for a long time, so I was very unhappy to see Andrew's obituary. In the wake of his passing I've been listening to this album a lot. It was recorded by Owsley Stanley on June 23, 1968 with one additional track from June 22nd, all of them recorded at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco which Bill Graham later turned into the Fillmore West. Stanley had a curious approach to recording the band, the vocals and drums are in one channel and the guitars in the other. It is kind of awkward to listen to with headphones or widely separated speakers, but sounds great if your speakers are close together and gives the overall sound remarkable clarity for a vintage live recording. It opens with a typically raucous work out on the band's theme song "Combination of the Two" written by Andrew and sung by him and Janis Joplin. It is one of my favorite songs by the band and gets the record going with a burst of energy. Joplin and Andrew's bluesy "I Need a Man to Love" is up next. The song allows Joplin to show off her vocal prowess and I enjoy the vocal interplay between her and the band. Andrew wrote "Flower in the Sun" which has plenty of energy and I dig the guitar riff. It has a loud, driving guitar solo that gets me going. The interplay between Joplin and the guitar at the end of the song is wildly exciting. I first heard this performance of the song on the "Joplin in Concert" album where it was my favorite track. The side ends with a rocked up version of Peter Albin's "Light is Faster Than Sound" off their debut album. This version is more than twice as long as the studio version and boasts a crazed acid rock guitar solo. Side B opens with the band's cover of "Summertime." The studio version of this on "Cheap Thrills" is my favorite of the countless covers of this classic song through the decades and this one is almost as good. Joplin sings her heart out and the noisy psychedelic guitar solo is fabulous. This performance was also first released on "Joplin in Concert." "Catch Me Daddy" is a group composition that shows just how hard Big Brother could rock when they wanted to. I think it is one of the most exciting tracks that they ever did. "It's a Deal" is also a group composition and was an outtake from the "Cheap Thrills" sessions. I can see why it didn't make the final cut but it has a lot of energy and I like it a lot. It is sung by one of the guys in the band who is poorly recorded diminishing the power of the song. The side concludes with Andrew's "Call On Me" which is sung as a duet by him and Joplin. The song was one of the most romantic tracks in Big Brother's repertoire and it is sung with a lot of feeling. At the conclusion of the song there is a stage announcement for some Hell's Angels in the audience to move their bikes before they get towed by the police. Side C opens with "Jam-I'm Mad (Mad Man Blues)" which is a boogie sung by one of the guys in the band. It is credited to the group but it bears some resemblance to John Lee Hooker's "Mad Man Blues" although the lyrics are different. I've never heard the song before. Most of the song is devoted to a guitar jam that I enjoy quite a bit. It pales in comparison though to the performance of "Piece of My Heart" that follows. It is rougher than the studio version but almost as powerful. The side concludes with "Coo Coo" which is credited to Albin although it is really a traditional song. The vocal is at first sung by one of the guys in the band who is so poorly recorded that he is practically inaudible unless you crank up the volume. There is a lengthy guitar work out and then Joplin sings the song, full throttle. Finally the guitar brings the song home. It is another very exciting, high energy performance. Side D begins with Big Mama Thornton's "Ball & Chain" which of course was Joplin's big showcase number with Big Brother. It was the best part of the "Monterey Pop" film and to my mind easily the best thing Joplin ever did. This performance is outstanding rivaling the classic version on "Cheap Thrills." This closed the original show but the group came back with an encore of "Down On Me" that is far from the best performance of the song that I've heard the band do, but it gets the job done. The side concludes with a recording from the June 22nd concert, another performance of "Call On Me." It is more subdued and prettier than the other version on the album. I'm really happy with this record, it is a quality pressing and it is handsomely packaged with informative liner notes. It sounds like it was a great show, I wish I could have been there. "Cheap Thrills" is still the definitive statement by the band, but this is a nice supplement. It is also a nice testament to Sam Andrew's talent, as a songwriter, musician and vocalist. He deserved a better career and a whole lot more recognition, but I'm grateful for the great music he did make while he was here. Recommended to people who have worn out their copies of "Cheap Thrills."
Friday, May 8, 2015
Universal Music Enterprises B0016735-01
I have to admit that I bought this mostly out of duty rather than any expectation it would be good. The Beatles are my favorite group and have been since I was a child, but I've always been lukewarm (at best) towards Harrison's solo career. I enjoyed the documentary film that inspired this record so I bought this and what a pleasant surprise. It is a collection of Harrison's demo recordings mostly from "All Things Must Pass." I figured the raw recordings would expose Harrison's feeble vocals which Phil Spector dressed up with tons of reverb on "All Things Must Pass." It is just the opposite however. Freed from Spector's meddling and production tricks, the songs come to life. Harrison's singing is not great, but the intimacy and warmth of the recordings make them more engaging and moving. This is evident right from the opening track, "My Sweet Lord." I've never liked the song much and hearing it so often on the radio through the years, I've basically stopped paying attention to it. The naked demo version just has a rudimentary rhythm track and some acoustic guitar placing all the focus on Harrison who sounds inspired and impassioned. The song is shorter than the finished track and doesn't feature all that Hare Krishna stuff at the end, which I consider an improvement. "Run of the Mill" is even more stripped down, just Harrison and an acoustic guitar. His vocal is a little ragged but I like it. The early take of "I'd Have You Any Time" sounds similar to the finished version minus all the fussiness. Its immediacy and feeling are enhanced as a result. Next up is a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mama You've Been On My Mind" which never made it to vinyl. The song suits Harrison's voice very well and the intimacy and breathiness of his vocal track make the song one of my favorites on the record. The side ends with a cover of the Everly Brothers' classic "Let It Be Me." I would have figured it would be terrible, but it is quite lovely. Harrison double tracks his vocal to create a harmony vocal similar to the Everlys' recording. Again his vocal is gentle and breathy bringing out all the tenderness in the song. I'm completely charmed by it. Side two opens with "Woman Don't You Cry For Me" which appeared on "Thirty-Three & 1/3." The song has a country-blues sound on the early take that I greatly prefer to the slickness of the released version. "Awaiting On You All" has a thunderous sound on "All Things Must Pass" which I think overwhelms it and distracts from its message. I don't really care much for that message but this early take delivers it a whole lot clearer while still retaining some rock power. The demo version of "Behind That Locked Door" features some wonderful pedal steel guitar work from Pete Drake and a heartfelt vocal by Harrison that really impresses me. The demo version of "All Things Must Pass" is for me the most revelatory track on the album. The release version is over-produced and Harrison's vocal sounds inadequate and feeble for the majesty of the song. The simplicity of the demo allows his vocal to shine and I find the song very moving. The album concludes with a demo of "The Light That Has Lighted the World" from "Living in the Material World" an album that I have never liked. I wish I could say the demo salvages the song, but I don't think even a great singer like Aretha Franklin could make me care about this song. The demo is an improvement but I still don't like it much. There you have it, nine fine tracks and one not so fine, easily my favorite Harrison solo album. It is probably unfair to judge an artist by work that was never intended for public hearing, but for me this album changes the way I view Harrison. I've always felt he was a limited artist and a weak singer, but now I think he was more of an artist who was poorly served by his vision. I could blame Phil Spector, but Harrison is the guy who brought him in. Harrison sought that grandiosity and epic scope, but I think he should have reined in his ambitions and trusted in the beauty of his music. The intimacy and gentleness of this album are the ideal setting for his talents. Instead of imitating John Lennon, he should have emulated Nick Drake. If I have any complaint about this album, it is that it is too short. It is barely 30 minutes long. Given that is labeled "Volume 1" I assume there are plenty of other tracks in the vault. Instead of hoarding them for future volumes they could have stuck 4 or 5 more on this album and brought it up to proper album length. Recommended to fans of the Beatles' "Anthology" albums.