By Bruce Sylvester
The Pearl Sessions
Columbia/Legacy (2 CDs)
Big Brother and The Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin
Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968
An archetype of Woodstock-era rock’s self-destructive hedonism, Janis Joplin (1943-70) died from a shot of overly pure heroin as she neared completion of “Pearl.”
The album was the source of her only solo Top 40 hit, chart topper “Me And Bobby McGee,” whose ballad-tempo intro shows a direction she might ultimately have taken as opposed to the rasps and shrieks that sounded spontaneous but — says her biographer, Alice Echols, in “Scars Of Sweet Paradise” — actually were pre-planned.
Posthumous “Pearl” has been reissued several times. On the 2005 Legacy Edition “Pearl,” a bonus disc offered live tracks from the Summer 1970 cross-Canada Festival Express tour. (The “Festival Express” DVD with numerous acts is phenomenal.) Now, “The Pearl Sessions” concludes Disc 1 with mono mixes of six of the original LP’s 10 songs. Disc 2 includes two live renditions (“Tell Mama” from Festival Express and “Half Moon” from “The Dick Cavett Show”); a quiet acoustic demo of “McGee” (plus an alternate take of it with country guitar licks); and a “Cry Baby” alternate take with funny ad libbing. On five “Overheard In The Studio” tracks, cackling Joplin, her Full Tilt Boogie Band and producer Paul Rothchild joke, bicker, discuss how to handle songs and speculate about sex with Richard Nixon.
Echols has written that the natural singing voice of the highly intelligent and ambitious Joplin was a pure soprano, but she adopted rough, alcohol-soaked tones to boost her popularity. The notes to “Carousel” say that when Big Brother manager Chet Helms wanted to bring her into the band for the sake of having a chick singer, the big brothers told her she’d have to sing to fit their music.
Recorded by the legendary Owsley Stanley at the Carousel Ballroom in the band’s San Francisco home base, shortly after laying down “Cheap Thrills” (Big Brother’s breakthrough LP), “Carousel” largely features songs on their studio discs but with even more raw energy. Joplin, who became one of rock’s most iconic singers, shares lead vocals.
Her trademark “Piece Of My Heart,” “Ball And Chain” and “Down On Me” (creative adaptations of songs by Erma Franklin, Big Mama Thornton and Odetta, respectively) indicate her debt to black artists. A spooky “Coo Coo” reflects the band’s trad-folk side. The one bonus track, a “Call On Me” from the previous evening, shows how they varied numbers’ arrangements from night to night.
If a single song on these discs captures the spirit of Joplin and friends’ live-for-today hedonism, it’s the aptly placed final track of the original “Pearl”: “Get It While You Can,” with its prophetic line, “We may not be here tomorrow.” As younger sister Laura Joplin remarked in her bio, “Love, Janis,” Janis never did anything halfway.