Lisa Battle - vocals; Sam Andrew - guitar, vocals; James Gurley - guitar; Peter Albin - bass, vocals; David Getz - drums; ; Guests:; Michael Carabello - congas, percussion; Martin Fierro - sax
Big Brother & The Holding Co. was one of the bands largely responsible for pioneering San Francisco's psychedelic music scene and since the group's recordings experienced some early commercial success, for spreading that musical vision across the planet. Initially featuring James Gurley, Peter Albin, Sam Andrew and Chuck Jones (soon to be replaced by drummer David Getz), Big Brother's unique musical chemistry was a prime example of the sum being far greater than the individual parts. Right from the start, Big Brother achieved a direct connection with audiences as the house band at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom, a dance hall venue run by the band's manager, Chet Helms. It was in the San Francisco dance halls that Big Brother developed a loyal following, initially due in large part to the unconventional and pioneering guitar work of lead guitarist James Gurley. Untrained and undisciplined, Gurley played by using what he himself described as an "emotional approach" to his instrument, inspired by the likes of country blues musicians like Lightnin' Hopkins and the free jazz explorations of saxophonist John Coltrane. Gurley's captivating finger-picking and freeform approach influenced countless rock guitarists to follow and, until Chet Helms brought Janis Joplin into the fold, it was Gurley who provided the element that made Big Brother such trailblazers of psychedelic music.
The monstrous talent and charisma of Janis Joplin would bring the band international recognition, but her tenure in the band (less than three years) would also be a double-edged sword, making it difficult for the band to establish an identity separate from Joplin's overwhelming presence. When Joplin embarked on a solo career, Big Brother carried on without her for a few years, releasing two under-appreciated albums, before pursuing individual projects. They would occasionally reunite for special occasions, until in 1987 the core band (Gurley, Albin, Andrew and Getz) officially reunited and returned to performing, often augmented by other talented Bay Area musicians and singers.
Presented here is one of those latter day incarnations of Big Brother, when they performed a memorable set in conjunction with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opening, when a launch party was held at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore Auditorium. Featuring the likes of Country Joe McDonald and It's A Beautiful Day on the bill, Big Brother's performance is notable not only for the occasion and special guests joining them, but also for being one of the last live performances to include James Gurley, who would soon depart permanently. However, on this evening, just prior to the 30th Anniversary of the Summer Of Love, the group is in fine form and features Lisa Battle, a powerful and well-disciplined singer. Battle brings much to the proceedings and, while tackling many songs that will forever be associated with Janis, wisely avoids attempting to emulate Joplin's style.
The recording begins with an introduction by Chet Helms before Big Brother kicks it off with "Down On Me," the song released as their first single way back when.During this and the next two songs, "Combination Of The Two" and "I Need A Man To Love," both sourced from the iconic 1968 album, Cheap Thrills, it becomes apparent that the vitality of Big Brother is still very much in tact and that they can still deliver the raw intensity that initially established their reputation. The latter song is delivered with a harder edged sound than the original and this performance conveys Lisa Battle's vocal talents in terms of both range and delivery.
"Do What You Love," a new composition written by Sam Andrew, follows these vintage Big Brother staples. A funky number propelled by Peter Albin's swinging bass and the jangley guitars of Andrew and Gurley, this is complemented by soulful vocals from Battle, who is equally compelling on the Janis Joplin penned "Women is Losers."
At this point in the show, former Santana percussionist Michael Carabello joins Big Brother on stage, adding an interesting percussion prelude that segues directly into "Summertime," another song from the Cheap Thrills album. Battle's voice is also up to the task of tackling this classic song, which remains one of the best examples of Big Brothers' arranging skills. Contrasting everything up to this point, the smoother pulse of "Save Your Love" is another new song that introduces a bit of reggae flavoring to the set. This not only features Carabello joining in, but also the extraordinary saxophone player Martin Fierro, who graced many recordings and performances by Mother Earth, The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia and Zero to name but a few.
The set concludes by returning to Cheap Thrills material with two of the band's most powerful numbers, "Piece Of My Heart" and "Ball And Chain," both featuring Gurley's undeniably intense sound. Despite strongly echoing their psychedelic past, these classic songs remain fresh and vibrant here, thanks in no small part to Battle's outstanding vocals.
During the following year, Big Brother would record and issue an impressive new album featuring Battle on vocals. Replaced by guitarist Tom Finch, James Gurley would permanently opt out at this point making this live recording possibly the last remaining example of Gurley, Albin, Andrew and Getz all on the same stage together.
-Written by Alan Bershaw