Bigger & Still Holding

Whoever said you can't have it both ways (was it John Cougar Mellencamp?) hadn't scrutinized fan reaction to Janis Joplin's split from Big Brother & the Holding Company in September of 1968. The band, along with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, was already at the top of the San Francisco rock scene before they recruited Janis in June of 1966 for a twisting, tumultuous ride to national prominence and beyond. They lurched onward for another few years after the withdrawal of her volcanic, incandescent vocals before disbanding in 1972. But, as their appearance at the West Strand Grill this Friday, June 26th, conspicuously demonstrates, that was scarcely the end of their story.

There was a wave of authentic resentment when Joplin left the band along with guitarist Sam Andrew to fumble together the fashionably horn-augmented Kozmic Blues Band under the guidance of Columbia Records director Clive Davis and Bearsville's Albert Grossman, who had assumed the band's management role and wrestled them away from Bobby Shad's Mainstream label. Oddly, many of the same voices that had argued that Janis had outgrown the crude, erratically tuned acid rock of Big Brother began criticizing the new sound and complaining that the raw, searing bite of the earlier group was better suited to her style; having it both ways.

The times in general were as fast and loose as a Big Brother show and Janis was burning it deep to keep the flare hot and pure. Sam Houston Andrew was writing most of the material, blending vocals with Joplin and tearing off acres of electrifying guitar engagement with James Gurley, literally defining the sounds of an era. The Kosmic Blues move sputtered and Andrew himself was replaced by the versatile talents of Strafford, Ontario's Whisperin' John Till immediately after their Woodstock festival appearance as the band regeared to the smoother entity that would become Janis Joplin's final ensemble; one that is well remembered locally for their post-Janis exile in Woodstock- The Full Tilt Boogie Band.

Today, Sam Andrew is circumspect about the chain of events. Asked what happened to the Kozmic Blues Band, he replies "That's a good question. I've often wondered about that. We never had a decent playing night, I think, in the United States. We did a European tour and the band was real up for that. It was really good; really happening. We played Albert Hall in London and the Olympia in Paris. We played in Frankfort, Copenhagen, Stockholm. Those were really good gigs but no one in the U.S. ever heard them."

Andrew paused in reflection and continued; "The band just didn't have any direction. What happened with that really is that Janis and I shouldn't have left Big Brother. We left too soon and she just lost her balance and it was not a good idea for her ...She got back on a good track right before she died. I think that she would have been great with that band- the Full Tilt Boogie Band- but she didn't have enough time. So, that's what happened. She left Big Brother too soon."

Left in an echoing lurch by the departure of Janis and Sam, bassist Peter Albin and drummer Dave Getz, both of whom are featured in the current Big Brother, joined Country Joe and the Fish for awhile. A native San Franciscan, Albin also sang pre-Janis leads and even a few on the Mainstream album which, according to Clive Davis was actually a demo tape the band was reluctant to release. (This much is believable; it sounds like a demo tape. Clive Davis hadn't heard it when he saw Big Brother's historic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Davis later wrote "I knew immediately that I had to go after her. I didn't tote up any executive balance sheet. I didn't care who managed her, or if she was under contract to another label. I just wanted her." He didn't say "them." Even Davis's claim that Janis wanted to ball him, sight unseen, as part of the signing deal doesn't scrape sideways on the legend. But his tale of spending an hour with Big Brother in a conference room, upon first meeting them, without realizing that one of the band members was entirely nude stretches credulity.)

Getz, a Brooklyn native and one-time Woodstock resident who had played Dixieland and studied art at N.Y.C.'s Cooper Union, Maine's Skowegan Art School and the San Francisco Art Institute, lived in Poland on a Fulbright painting fellowship for a year before falling in with the band. He continues his work in the visual arts when he isn't touring Russia, Germany, Japan or North America with Big Brother. (Incidentally, another member of a San Franciscan psychedelic era band has since become a well-known Woodstock artist who turns a whiter shade of pale anytime the topic is broached. Don't ask. There's a secrecy vow involved).

Guitarist Tom Finch was born in California three days before the Woodstock festival, son of a member of the psychedelic band Star Machine. Finch studied classical and plays jazz in Iguana Tribe when he isn't hauling fresh blood to Big Brother. Another native Californian who brings a soulful twist to the band's new sound is vocalist Lisa Battle. Friday, we'll see if Battle has big enough feats to fill Janis's shoes but the advance critical word is encouraging.

Sam Andrew's tale is suitably complex. During Joplin's 25 post-Big Brother months, Andrew reformed the group and issued a pair of albums to follow 1967's chart-topper, Cheap Thrills. Janis contributed a couple of uncredited vocals to 1970's Be A Brother. But, at least according to Davis, they didn't tour enough to stay together and Andrew, ever the scholar, moved to New York for a serious study of music at the New School For Social Research in Manhattan and the Manis (spl?) School of Music. (In one of the better books on Janis, Piece of My Heart, David Dalton recalls Janis telling him about walking down the aisle in a plane where everyone is reading Newsweek or Kansas City Star, except for Sam who's "reading a book in Latin!")

"Through the '70's, I studied composition and harmony and counterpoint; that stuff, just kind of finishing off. I'd studied all those things on my own but I wanted to get into a formal thing and check my progress," said Andrew, who managed to defeat the same drug problem that took Joplin. He recorded in studios, wrote quartets and a symphony: "I thought I was going to become a classical musician there for a while or, at least, a composer of serious music. I did and I really enjoyed it." (Even before Joplin, he was known for his take-off on Grieg's Peer Gynt suite, "Hall of the Mountain King.") He learned saxophone, lived in Seattle and played jazz in the 1980's before a call from a promoter suggesting a reunion for the 20th anniversary of "the Summer of Love" planted the seed; "It wasn't someone we really wanted to deal with but it started us thinking. We were in the same geographical area for the first time in a long time...We've become older; went through a lot more influences. It's technically better. There's some extensions on the chords, you know, that we wouldn't have played then. There's some ninths, some thirteenths, some elevenths, some non-chordal things..In the old days, we played real hard and the strings weren't up to it. We didn't have tuners, so it was constantly going out; a real challenge to keep it in balance with no keyboard. If you're in a band with a keyboard then that's a different thing. You have to tune to the keyboard- automatically puts everything straight, which was the case in Kozmic Blues Band. As for Big Brother or any group that uses only strings, the tuning kind of wanders around. In tune with each other but it wouldn't be A equals 440."

Only thoroughly active in the past couple of years, the band performs a 50/50 mix of old and new material which seems appropriate to their two new releases. Sony has issued a blistering top of form live CD recorded at Winterland in April of 1968. Their own Cheap Thrills label has released a studio album (the first in 27 years) which features Albin, Andrew, Getz, Finch, Battle and guests like violist, Anna Schaad. With the added release of film projects, including a major motion picture on Janis, coming up, things should continue to hop. (They sometimes include rare footage of the band with Janis in their shows.) A mammoth tour, almost unbroken through November is kicking off but somewhere along the line, somebody in Big Brother should take the time to rethink these lines from the press release for their new Do What You Love cd; "Lisa Battle is in fine voice and singing better than ever. Hollywood will come calling for her any day now and Big Brother will send another star into the Great Beyond."

-Gary Alexander