Song: "Ball And Chain"
Album: none/Live At Monterey Pops 1967
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Throughout the history of recorded music, there are a handful of moments where one can say, "that" is the exact moment when the world became aware of the existence of a new band or singer. A majority of the time, by the time a band "makes it big," their early days have been forgotten, so these moments where, even decades later, one can experience these groundbreaking moments, are beyond precious. Case in point, when it came to completely silencing an audience due to sheer power and emotion, the likes of which had rarely been heard, one must point to June 17, 1967 as the exact day that the world became aware of a woman named Janis Lyn Joplin. As Joplin and her backing band, Big Brother And The Holding Company, were closing their set at the Monterey Pops Music Festival, they brought out their final number, a daring cover of Big Mama Thorton's classic, "Ball And Chain." For a relatively unknown act to attempt such a song was significant in itself; but the fact that a "white girl" was going to sing the vocals made the song even more intriguing. Though the festival may be best remembered for Jimi Hendrix's famous guitar burning, when it came to the musical highlights of the three days, there was simply nothing that compared to Joplin's stirring performance in her bands' final number. As video would later show, Joplin's performance quite literally left the crowd in awe, and it now serves as a preview of the greatness that she would bring over the next three years. Truth be told, it was this very performance that earned Joplin and the band their record deal, and she almost instantly become one of the most important people in all of music.
When one looks deeper into the situation, they will find that Joplin and the band actually performed twice at the festival. During their original time slot, the group refused to let the film crew record (a money dispute), but their set was so good, that they agreed to perform two more songs on camera the following day. It was on this second day that the group made their famous performance, as they played "Combination of The Two" and a solo-less version of "Ball And Chain." The rendition of "Ball And Chain" that was performed at the Monterey Pops Festival (linked above) was far different from the version that would be recorded on the bands' debut record, Cheap Thrill, and in many ways, it shows where the band was musically at the time. The song drops in with a wild, sedated, psychedelic lead, before moving into a deep, soulful blues progression. While both Sam Andrew and James Gurley play exceptionally during the brief moments that they take center stage, after the opening progression, there is little question as to "who" is the star of the band. As one would expect, as soon as it becomes clear that Joplin is "in the zone," the entire band takes a step back, and does their best to not let their playing interfere with what remains one of the most moving vocal performances in music history. One can clearly hear the difference after listening to the later, studio recording of the song, and there is a very stark contrast between the two.
While many have tried, there has simply never been another vocalist quite like Janis Joplin. Without question one of the true Queen's of soul singing, few artists from any era have brought as much soul-bearing honesty to their performances. The fact that Joplin would not only go after such a legendary song, but absolutely blow the song away is a testament to her musical prowess, as when one watches the performance, it is clear that she is completely overtaken and committed to the song. Joplin's vocals soar across the musical scale, as her deep, moody notes bring just as much power and emotion as her higher pitched wailing, as she channels the true emotion of the words which she sings. The performance is nothing short of mesmerizing, as there was and is truly nothing one can do during the song except sit in awe of the raw and unrestrained interpretation that Joplin gives. The song itself is as simple a blues song as one will find anywhere, and Joplin's performance proves that it is not so much "what" one sings, but more to the point "how" they are singing the words. Perfectly capturing every bit of feeling and emotion, the frustration, heartbreak, and general melancholy of the song are blazingly brought to life, and Joplin's performance remains the finest rendition of the song more than four decades later. Quickly staking her claim as not only one of the most talented soul singers in the world, but without question one of the greatest vocalists in history, one would be hard pressed to find a more moving or powerful vocal moment anywhere in history then one finds on this recording of "Ball And Chain."
When a musician has contributed so much to the shape of music that they can be referred to simply by one name, the woman they called "Janis" truly ranks among the most important. Serving as the blueprint for a new generation of soul singers, as well as an icon of the new breed of female vocalists, Janis Joplin remains one of the most uniquely powerful singers in history. Taking the stage in a completely fearless and almost unsettlingly aggressive manner, Joplin re-wrote the books on "what" a female singer could do on stage, and everyone from Patti Smith to Madonna to Chrissy Hynde owe their careers to the pioneering style of Janis Joplin. While her studio recordings are certinaly to be treasured, it is the existence of rare recordings such as her landmark performance at the 1967 Monterey Pops Festival that give a clear picture as to why the group was signed so quickly, as well as why their debut album later that year was one of the most highly anticipated releases in history. Joplin quickly grabs the crowd with her stirring and completely engrossing stage presence, and the few crowd images after the performance perfectly capture the moment, as one sees audience members sitting stunned and shaking their heads in amazement. Thankfully, "listenable" copies of this legendary performance exist, as it captures a truly special moment in music history: when with her unparalleled performance of "Ball And Chain," Janis Joplin was introduced to the world, and it would never be the same again.