CD Review: Janis Joplin, Pearl: Legacy Edition

Pearl was Janis Joplin’s final, and sadly posthumous, studio release. As the album was being recorded in the Fall of 1970, several signs pointed to a positive turnaround in Janis’s life. She had cleaned up her drug habits at least partially, assembled a band (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) exactly to her liking, and begun moving in a new, mature musical direction all her own. She had also finally found a producer, Paul Rothchild, who – as road manager John Cooke describes it in his liner notes to the new Pearl – Legacy Edition – “was unlike any producer she had worked with before… working with him was the best experience of her recording career.”

Plenty has been written about Pearl and I wouldn’t venture to have anything significantly new to say. I’ll just mention that if you haven’t listened to Janis for some time, it’s worth revisiting her last studio album. There will always be some die-hards who think Janis never should have left Big Brother, and there will always be those whose favorite album is I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama, but the fact is, for as long as she lived Janis was always a work in progress. Maybe she always would have been. Pearl represented the summit of her self-creation to that point, and it was the only studio album she truly enjoyed making.

The bonus tracks here include the fascinating demo version of “Me And Bobby McGee” from the Columbia/Legacy Janis release, where you can hear the artist in the process of developing the vocal parts she burned permanently into popular culture just over a month later with the studio recording that ended up on the album. There’s also an alternate version of “Cry Baby” with a longer, goofier rap than the album track – it’s not as tight, but shows that good times were being had in the studio. A previously unreleased alternate take of “My Baby” seems incomplete without the final version’s backing vocals but it is interesting to hear a work in progress almost ready to be served. There’s also an instrumental called “Pearl” which the band recorded after Janis died. This has never before been issued, and it’s a beautiful and poignant tribute.

The fruit of Janis’s successful collaboration with Rothchild and the new band is evident on the album, but the live feel captured on Pearl was, necessarily, not an exact match to the band’s sound in concert. The recent release of a film of the Festival Express tour, in which Janis (with Full Tilt Boogie), the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy and others travelled together by train across Canada in June-July 1970, stopping for several concerts, provided some excellent documentary evidence of Janis’s musical development during her last year on the planet. Now, with the two-disc Legacy Edition, a full collection of live Festival Express recordings is readily available. Together with Pearl itself and the bonus studio tracks, the Festival Express recordings comprise a worthy document of the tragically brief, explosive final phase in the career of a singer who was so ahead of her time we may never catch up.

About half the Festival Express tracks on Disc 2 haven’t been released before. The rest have appeared on various live collections over the years. They’re a little tinny-sounding overall, but the band’s energy and prowess is evident, the quality of the vocals satisfyingly warm and close. The present release is valuable both for the new tracks and for having them all collected in one place in a sensible sequence, giving a better picture of a Full Tilt Boogie Band concert than has been previously available.

The frenetically fast “Tell Mama” is a testament to the band’s chops, but also includes a Janis rap that takes the audience up, down, sideways and everywhere in between. Whatever drugs the musicians were taking that made them play that fast didn’t interfere with Janis’s virtuoso ability to play the audience like an instrument.

“Half Moon,” from the same Toronto show, also gets the speed-demon treatment, but ends with a spacy, jazzy twist. Like The Band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and other top bands of the time, Full Tilt Boogie succeeded (as its predecessor, the Kozmic Blues Band, didn’t) in solidifying as a group, melding top-notch musicianship with a loose but controlled energy that matched Janis’s.

“Move Over” and “Maybe” got straightforward treatments at the Calgary and Winnipeg concerts respectively, and the previously unreleased “Summertime” from Winnipeg is masterful in its way, though only loosely rooted in Sam Andrew’s innovative Big Brother arrangement. Janis’s vocals here show her own mature, serious, intensely focused, innovative spirit. Always famous for taking existing songs and making them uniquely her own, Janis with the Full Tilt Boogie Band not only put her own stamp on these compositions but made them into masterpieces of originality, no longer needing the crutch of her old Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates, who had matched Janis in exploratory spirit but not in charismatic genius. Full Tilt Boogie, by contrast, was entirely Janis’s vision – this band did exactly and only what she wanted. And with them Janis took rock and blues and soul to places only she could have imagined.

Janis’s version of “Little Girl Blue” is so much her own it’s practically unrecognizable, but that’s well known from the studio version. “That’s Rock ‘N Roll,” a propulsive but unremarkable jam showing off the band, leads into “Try,” where, in talking to the audience, Janis sounds stoned or drunk; then she slurs powerfully (a contradiction in terms for anyone but Janis) through an anthemic rendition – already known to fans from the Janis Joplin in Concert album – of her signature compostion, “Kozmic Blues.”

I’ve never liked Janis’s later renditions of “Piece of My Heart.” She and the band rush through this one as if it were just a tired hit – and perhaps that’s how it seemed to them, a song from an earlier era played only to please fans. (Compare it to Big Brother’s eye-opening version on Live at Winterland ’68, when the song was exciting to the band and new to the audience.) During this “Piece of My Heart” from two years later, even Janis’s singing seems tired.

Clearly, that perfunctory concert closer was going to be followed by some hellacious encores. An extended version of “Cry Baby” was the first. Initially sounding exhausted and flat, Janis nevertheless clearly had her heart in this performance, especially in the long central rap, where she wrapped her blues-mama sermon-blanket over the audience. “Get It While You Can” and “Ball and Chain” made suitably titanic final encores. During the latter, Janis preached a message which it helps to bear in mind when we listen to this work from her last blast and wish she’d lived to sing another day. “Tomorrow never happens,” she tells us. “It’s all the same f*cking day, man.”

That goes for yesterday, too.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]