CD Review: ‘Live At the Carousel Ballroom 1968’ — Big Brother, Janis and ‘Bear’ are still rockin’

So many live recordings have been issued for Janis Joplin, with and without Big Brother and the Holding Company, that yet another may seem like scraping a barrel bottom. But this one is not. This one is special.

Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 (due Tuesday from Columbia/Legacy) is the first-ever release of a concert recorded in San Francisco — at a counter culture hotbed near today’s San Francisco Opera — by renowned soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley. Tuesday’s release marks the one-year anniversary since Stanley died in a car accident in his adopted home of Australia, so it’s dedicated to Stanley, who supervised its mastering before he died.

A first listen to these 14 often glorious tracks will attest: Stanley wasn’t acclaimed for nothing. This show at what would become Bill Graham’s Fillmore West is often  incendiary in its power and passion, thanks not just to the band but to Stanley’s superb recording.

Indeed, it’s almost a “you are there” feel for an in-their-prime band just two months before they’d break up. And I’ll have to agree with the album’s press notes: Stanley’s “sonic journals” are, in fact, a gold standard for live concert recordings from this era.

But what about the material? As you’d expect, it includes such usual suspects as Summertime and Piece of My Heart, which certainly stand out. But I’m especially impressed by lesser known numbers which keep the hall rocking, including Catch Me Daddy, bolstered by jagged guitars and Janis’ full-bore wailing for one of the group’s most propulsive straight-ahead rockers.

And a fitting send-off is final track Call On Me, the emotional blues belter which is the sole song from the weekend’s Saturday show (the other tracks all coming from the next day).

No, it wouldn’t last. Big Brother would disband, and Janis would succumb to drugs three short years later.

But for this magical weekend of San Francisco music — magically recorded by the man beloved as “Bear” — masterful music was made and masterfully recorded.  And now it’s ours — still “live” after all these years.

— Bruce Westbrook


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