Last night I listened to three concerts from 1969 that show rock at a crossroads. The first was the official debut of Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band at the Fillmore East on February 12th of that year. This show received a scathing review in the March 15th issue of Rolling Stone. The critic mocks Janis for her vulnerability and candor repeatedly saying that during their interview she expressed that she is singing better than ever. After listening to this testament I would say that hers was no idle boast. She sang magnificently, not just with feeling, but technically well, which is not easy to do while standing next to a live brass section.
The band had only played live together twice before. In the Rolling Stone review Janis is accused of being “an express” while her band makes “all the local stops” or in other words, lays back. I honestly didn’t hear it. The critic (and I use the word in the sense of one expressing disapproval rather than one analyzing and judging the merit of an artistic work) seems to me to have come to the concert with preconceived notions about Joplin and he didn’t let the music get in the way of his views. Here Janis may have been the first artist accused of “oversouling”. Again, I didn’t hear it. She reminded me of Otis Redding in her enthusiastic delivery. Also, in the recording the audience sounds ecstatic, yet, the article says, “the applause was respectful”. I can’t imagine a New York audience at the Fillmore East being “respectful”. Please.
The only valid criticism I remember from the time was that Sam Andrew wasn’t up to the task of being Janis’ guitarist. Funny, I can’t find evidence of this now on the Internet. In the recording that I heard, I feel that his tone sounds dated (for 1969) and his timing is off on a few tunes. I also remember that critics were not ready for Janis’ progression from psychedelic rock to R&B and soul music. This could be the real reason behind the negative review.
The second concert I listened to was Jefferson Airplane, June 13, 1969, Family Dog at the Great Highway. The band was clearly at a peak at this time. This was just prior to the release of their penultimate album “Volunteers” and the concert contains many songs from this recording. Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady were the very definition of electric. They sound like live wires, at the same time fascinating and dangerous. Grace Slick had by this time matured as a singer to the point where she could be adventurous and actually hit the notes she chose to. Paul Kantner‘s rhythm guitar doesn’t just keep time but adds texture. He at times used a rotating speaker tone – I don’t know if it was a Uni-Vibe or not but it sounds very good. Spencer Dryden’s drumming was appropriately jazzy and tribal. Even the vocals by Marty Balin and Kantner were restrained and balanced. Again, the undisciplined San Francisco sound was becoming more sophisticated.
Listening to this highlights just how tragic it was for the band to implode a few short years afterward. I saw them two years after this and it was basically a solid Hot Tuna show (Jack, Jorma and Papa John Creach, with Sammy Piazza) with a stoned-out Grace for added entertainment.
The third concert was courtesy of one of the most notorious bootlegs of all time,” Livr Than You’ll Ever Be”, by the Rolling Stones. This was one of the first rock boots after Dylan’s The Great White Wonder, brought to us by the same folks (Trademark of Quality). This audience recording was so good that the rock press of the time thought it was recorded on stage with the band’s permission.
This recording, may have lacked slightly in polish, but, by comparison the official live album “Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out” suffered from low testosterone. According to Clinton Heylin’s book “Bootleg”, The Stone’s road manager, Sam Cutler, bought six copies of the album – one for himself, and, a copy for each of the Stones. Mick and Keith became avid bootleg collectors after this.
Here was a first document of the new Stones. Clapton, Peter Green, Hendrix and Jeff Beck had raised the bar for rock guitarists. This had prompted the Stones to hire Mick Taylor as Brian Jones’ replacement and” Livr” shows that Jagger and the boys had made the right choice.
Not only were the musicians pushing themselves to new heights in 69 but the entrepreneurial bootleggers were pushing the record companies to step up their game. Apple Records released “Live Peace in Toronto” quickly because the show had been bootlegged. The Who’s “Live at Leeds” features a cover that looks suspiciously like “Livr” with the rubber stamp and all and sounds raw (unlike the overdubbed and overproduced “Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out”. Also, when Paul McCartney‘s first solo album came out it sounded more like a collection of outtakes and unreleased demos than a proper studio album. Truly, the music was in a period of transition.