The State of Woodstock 40 Years Later: Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter
Rock music ascended into heaven the minute guitarist Jimi Hendrix left the stage on Max Yasgur's farm, Monday morning, August 18, 1969. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was a cultural hinge between the soulful, struggling 1960s and the sinful, superfluous 1970s. The release of The Woodstock Experience commercially mirrors this hinge. The box contains two-CD sets by Santana, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Johnny Winter and Sly & the Family Stone, who at the time of Woodstock recorded for different labels, making a collection like this impossible. But 40 years later, Sony has consumed the labels, paving the way for one of the most thoughtful release series in musical memory.
For each of these artists, Sony has released their entire Woodstock sets and the studio album each released in 1969. A thoughtful pairing to be sure but also a perfect business decision. The "Woodstock generation" are approaching retirement looking for a nostalgic rush, while their children (and, perhaps, grandchildren) want to know what all the fuss was about.
The cream of these releases are the Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter sets. The two artists offer an interesting contrast to one another; both are captured in their salad days, one going quasar early and the other still riding the R&B circuit 40 years later.
Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience
In 1969, Janis Joplin's creative apex was nowhere in sight. After leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company in December, 1968, Joplin struck out on her own, hooking up with The Kosmic Blues Band, a group with a full horn section and a serious Stax/Volt jones. The result was I Got Dem Ol' Kosmic Blues Again Mama (Columbia, 1969), the studio album portion of Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience. Critically considered a letdown after Cheap Thrills (Columbia, 1968), Kosmic Blues remains vital as the conduit from Big Brother to the wholly emancipated Joplin of the post-posthumously released masterpiece Pearl (Columbia, 1971).
Kosmic Blues and Woodstock were both orbiting Joplin in all of her Left Coast hippie abandon. She was living and performing on the edge and her tenuous grasp is evident both in the studio and on stage. The Bee Gee's 1967 hit "To Love Somebody," once thought to be a poor repertoire choice for Joplin, proves, on these two discs, a revealing contrast of the singer in the studio and on stage. On Kosmic Blues Joplin sings the song barely contained. She is pleadingly soulful yet oddly relaxed, comfortable approaching the creative edge. Break to her heroin-fueled performance at Woodstock and we hear Joplin unleashed in full abandon. The performance is a glorious sloppy mess, but one for the ages.
Woodstock cast Joplin as a psychedelic mystic, a Hildegard von Port Arthur, belting our 100-proof canticles to Dionysus and Eros. Liberally performing from the then soon-to-be-released Kosmic Blues, Joplin gives the masses a good dose of her Soul Sacrifice. Reprising Big Brother's "Summertime," Joplin reveals her pan-sexuality, having too much salacious fun with the lyric, "Your Daddy's Rich And Your Mama's Good Lookin.'" To be sure, Joplin was frightening all good daughters' mothers to death. But all is not perfect. A manic "Piece of My Heart" and Snooky Flower's anemic "I Can't turn You Loose" mar an otherwise searing set.
In reconsidering Joplin, it is easy to think of what could have been. She benefits from having burned brightly if briefly. She might have delivered the definitive "Son Of A Preacher Man." As it is, these recordings document a corrosive and unstable talent, like aural uranium.
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Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience
Where Janis Joplin was already famous when she appeared at Woodstock, fellow Texan Johnny Winter was just making a name for himself. Well known locally in Texas, Winter was poised for a breakout when the Woodstock opportunity became available. His second recording, Johnny Winter, was released the same year he appeared at Woodstock and is included as the studio offering in Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience. There is not as much crossover as in the Janis Joplin set, save for "Leland Mississippi Blues," but the rest has become well known Winter concert fare.
J.B. Lenoir's "Mama, Talk to Your Daughter" opens Winter's Woodstock set in a grand rocking fashion. He moves through his standard "Mean Town Blues" with the requisite slide guitar break. Edgar Winter joins his brother for "I Can't Stand It" and "Tobacco Road." Many of these songs may be compared to performances recorded a year later at London's Royal Albert hall and released on the Deluxe Edition of Second Winter (Columbia, 1969). These two sources represent the germination of the volcano "Tobacco Road" would become on Edgar Winter's White Trash's 1972 live recording Roadwork.