I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!: The Woodstock Experience
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2010, Volume 17, #4
Written by John Metzger
Mon April 19, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
For all of the strength that she portrayed on stage, Janis Joplin was an incomplete and unformed individual for most of her all-too-brief career. After drifting between California and her native Texas, Joplin found a comfortable home with the brawny, blues-based constructs of Big Brother & the Holding Company. The groupís raggedness was an ideal match for Joplinís emotionally raw vocal delivery. After a blistering performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, the collective signed with Columbia Records and scored a huge hit with its sophomore set Cheap Thrills.
Lured by the prospect of finding greater fame and fortune on her own, Joplin managed to set aside her insecurities long enough to leave behind the relative safety of Big Brother & the Holding Company. The problem, however, is that Joplin had yet to figure out how to work within the constraints of the music business. In other words, as an artist, she wasnít really sure who she was. With Big Brother & the Holding Company, it didnít matter. She developed with the group ó some would contend that she forced it to mature ó and as a result, the musicians in Big Brother & the Holding Company understood her. They knew where she wanted to go and how to help her get there. They also knew she would react to a moment of spontaneity, and they always had her back.
On her own, however, Joplin was vulnerable. As a rising star, she attracted plenty of assistance and attention. Yet, few who came calling were willing to challenge her in the ways that the musicians in Big Brother & the Holding Company had. At the same time, she lacked the confidence to tell her new collaborators what they needed to do to support her. Consequently, as she struggled to find her way, there often was a disconnection that lurked between the music and her vocals.
Many of these issues, which arenít uncommon in these types of scenarios, manifested themselves throughout Joplinís performance at Woodstock. She gave the show everything she had, reveling in Raise Your Handís ecstatic energy and turning The Bee Geesí To Love Somebody into a song of torment and pain. Joplin was appearing in advance of the release of her solo debut I Got Dem Olí Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, and half of the tunes that she featured in her set were culled from the endeavor. It was a bold move, one that showed that she was determined to plow forth aggressively.
Unfortunately, Joplinís supporting cast was not yet up to the task. Big Brother & the Holding Company had always been an unpolished outfit, but Joplinís new group, which was dubbed The Kozmic Blues Band, made its predecessor look positively refined. Not surprisingly, then, most of the deficiencies that plagued Joplinís set sprang from the limitations of The Kozmic Blues Band. It was designed to embrace the sonic thrust of Southern soul acts such as Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. Yet, it hadnít had time to develop and define its own personality.
This is never more apparent than during a cover of George Gershwinís Summertime. The Kozmic Blues Band concocts a busier arrangement for the tune, but the end result isnít, by any means, better than the rendition that appeared on Cheap Thrills. In Big Brother & the Holding Companyís hands, Summertime followed a winding, meditative path that leant the song a desolate, lonely air. The Kozmic Blues Band strikes a similar tone, but adds so much to the mix that the final product is jarring. In fact, much of Joplinís performance at Woodstock can be characterized by its scattered, fly-by-night chaos. With mighty blasts, horns erupt everywhere, and the music pulses loudly along its driving, funky grooves. Yet, for the most part, there is only a minimal dimensionality to the music, and this is indicative of the groupís formulaic approach.
When it was issued in September 1969, I Got Dem Olí Kozmic Blues Again Mama! suffered from many of the same issues. Nevertheless, the confines of a recording studio sometimes can be more forgiving simply because major mistakes can be erased and greater care can be taken to broaden the textures of a song cycle. In the end, Joplinís performance at Woodstock wasnít her finest hour, but fans will nonetheless be drawn to the emphatic power of her vocal delivery.
Of Further Interest...
I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!: The Woodstock
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