Janis Joplin and The Band

Saturday, September 7th we host the 50th Anniversary “The Band” // Janis Joplin – I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! tribute concert!

Every year the Royal Room celebrates albums, predominantly in rock, soul and jazz – that were released half a century ago.

1969 was a phenomenal and prophetic year. I was 14 at the time, not quite old enough to be part of “it”. But I was easily old enough to be aware of all that was swirling around, and on the cusp of full scale engagement.

Even for people of my age, and certainly for those younger, it is sort of a revelation that “the 60s” were so much closer to the end of WWII than to 2019. But at that time, at least for younger folks, WWII seemed like ancient history. It was all in black and white, and the 60’s were in color, and then some. It is amazing how much changed in so little time.

I understand why folks tire of hearing about this particular period. The tropes have become clichés, and god knows the revolution didn’t last. But imagine going from Mamie Eisenhower and Frank Sinatra to two Kennedy’s and MLK dead, to Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground. No doubt A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue changed music, but the sonic revelation of Bitches Brew and Anthem of Sun were opening ALL kinds of minds. While John Cage rocked the academy The Art Ensemble of Chicago were lining kids around the block at the Great American Music hall by the early 70s and it just is safe to say a lot happened in music in a very short time.

Janis Joplin took everything she learned in Texas and brought it to San Francisco at just the right time, or the wrong time, depending on how you feel. As much Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton as one might hear in her voice, there Is also a true rock and roller, a skinny kid from a hick town, and someone who made a strange, and brief marriage with psychedelia. After Cheap Thrills Janis wanted to put the soul and groove back in the package, and got the right musicians – and horns! – to make it happen. I Got Dem ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama gets it just right, and as much as she might have wanted to leave the Haight Ashbury behind, it still lingers in some essential way. The narrative is pretty raw: Women don’t have it easy in this world- and the subtext was, in hindsight, that the so-called counter culture didn’t do a whole lot to change that. The line that weakens my knees is the opening of “To Love Somebody.” In almost a whisper she sings “There’s a light/a certain kind of light/that never shined on me”.

Eponymously titled The Band, it is their second record. The first, Music from Big Pink was the most anti-revolutionary revolutionary record ever made. The whole rap about The Band was that they were a reaction to psychedelia, and by extension indulgence, even politics. They brought the music back home, into the center of something quintessentially American, with a nod towards tradition and family. In reality, four of the five were Canadian, and the three soulful singers were as narcotic obsessed and prone to excessive behavior as any rock band of the era, and then some.

Although touted as a return to old fashioned music making, there is a lot that could be called psychedelic about Music from Big Pink. It is sonically very odd, and totally phenomenal. It is credited with blowing everyone’s mind, but in the opposite direction. Legend is that Eric Clapton shut down Cream, and the whole idea of long jams, after hearing its beauty and economy. But listening back now, it is not only a lesson in less, but a sonic mind bend, just without all the shouting. I would call it one of the true masterpieces of the 20th century.

The second record, The Band, isn’t quite as revolutionary, but in its refinement, it is as close to perfect as a record can be. Everything is placed just so, and the sound is seductive and comforting at the same time. The themes are dark and painful, while the playing is joyful and, well, playful.

I was astonished by its simplicity after listening to this record for so many years. I assumed that transcribing it would be so difficult, a journey into hard-to-solve mysteries. But in fact, the chord progressions and forms are not nearly as daunting as I imagined. I realized the songs were not much different from a lot of records of its day. Instead it was the playing, and of course the singing, that made it so unique. NO ONE played like this. Garth Hudson plays some stuff where I have no idea what is going on. He was the nerd in the band, and the sage, and that is why they called him honey dripper.

I never heard The Band live, but I got to see Janis quite a bit, more than any other rock icon of the day. At age 12, living in California, my then separated parents decided to get back together, as my father switched jobs and we all moved to Washington D.C. My mother asked me if there was anything special I wanted to do before we left, and without hesitation I replied, “have my brother Lee take me to the Fillmore to see the Grateful Dead.” For those of you who gag at the words The Grateful Dead I get it, but in 1967 they were on fire, and I still believe their first record (the one no one knows) is one of the great rock records of all time, and that the second, Anthem of the Sun, should be essential listening for anyone interested in electronic music, studio technique, and experimental music,

The Dead weren’t playing anytime soon, so we went to the Fillmore on a weeknight to hear Janis with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Bo Diddley opening, 40 people in the audience and 15 Hells angels in the back. Shortly thereafter I took my little brother Philip, who at age 7 was a huge fan, to hear them again at the Alexandria Roller Rink in Virginia. Somehow in the next few years, before her death, I saw her at least two more times, this time with the bands she formed later, with Snookey Flowers and the gang. The last time I saw her James Cotton was on the bill. She had found her family, and I am grateful I got to see the arc of it all.

Of all the members of The Band, and Janis, only one came from a big city (Toronto). Listening back to the band, there is a lot of swagger in the songs, they were still in their 20’s, and recently the backing band for Bob Dylan – but there is a yearning and sense of loss as well. I wish I’d heard them live. The standard rap is that The Band never really brought much new to the live gigs that weren’t on the recordings. They certainly weren’t going to “jam”, and they kept their sets tight and well-rehearsed. But if you look at the footage from Festival Express, that myth is debunked. Richard Manual is on fire singing Stage Fright and the whole ensemble is as close to the edge as they can get while still reigning it all in. Like the Beatles and The Art Ensemble, they were so much more than the sum of their parts. The really were THE Band.

By 1970 Janis was dead and The Band never really came close to making another record as great as the first two. But one became an icon of a woman against almost all the odds, and the other forever changed the face of American music. It was a hell of a year.

– Wayne Horvitz

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