To use Jim Morrison’s phrase, rock and roll never tested the limits of reality more insistently than it did in the late '60s, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Doors, and Janis Joplin and the Holding Company were at the peak of their very considerable powers. That’s why this extraordinary live album both represents and transcends its time.
Very rarely does an album both represent a great band at its peak and also capture a historic moment like this. As we all know, the world was coming apart in 1968, and there’s a certain apocalyptic intensity in this music and especially in Janis's take-no-prisoners style of singing. As you listen, you can practically see her striding across the stage, mike in one hand and a bottle of Southern Comfort in the other. She sings as though she’s tearing her throat out, and her deliberately incoherent roars are something like the rock equivalent of scat singing.
And the '60s, like Janis herself, were doomed. Janis was a very great artist with a limited vocal and thematic range. She had what you might call aggressive masochism, yet it was raised to a high art form: suicide as a spectator sport, if you will. The only other performer who had such a deadly combination of prodigious talent and fragile psyche was James Dean. The freedom that fame gives to America’s great performers proved to be too much for these delicate souls, who briefly lit up the sky and then burned out. Sounds and images could be enhanced; physiology, it turned out, could not.
Then, too, the people whom these fragile souls touch acquire some of their doomed splendor. We owe this amazing recording to legendary soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley—who died in a car accident, as James Dean did, on March 12, 2011. His widow, Sheilah Stanley, commented, “This is Bear’s vision—how he heard the band live, and how he wanted to transmit that to you this truly is Bear’s presentation of this phenomenal band and inspirational music.”
Although no one thought about it like this at the time, the Carousel Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium were in effect sanctuaries where people could and did take refuge from the endemic craziness that was America in 1968. They could wear fantasy costumes and they could in principle dance, but very few people did more than make vaguely rhythmic motions. The point, rather, was to let the music and the light show give you a sensory overload and take you away. Without exactly putting this attitude into words, the musicians of the Holding Company understood it, and that’s why we have so many extended instrumental jams. It’s worth noting that these jams, too, died with the '60s—except insofar as they were preserved by the Grateful Dead. When Led Zeppelin made arena rock the order of the day for big-name bands, people who were sitting in seats outside wanted to hear the hits that they already knew by heart, not guitarists’ flights of fancy.
So there are multiple levels to the importance of this unforgettable album. Anybody who cares about rock and roll—not to mention those who live and die for it—owes a debt of gratitude to Columbia/Legacy for putting it out.