Pearl: Legacy Edition – Janis Joplin
Columbia Records 90282
Janis Joplin had a gift. That statement seems so obvious, but in a classic rock radio world her daily presence tends to dull her shining star. Pearl: Legacy Edition makes us aware of her stunning attributes in the manner of an artwork that’s been restored.
Her symbolic rise from the ashes of being pigeonholed as another talented casualty of the ’60s came about in the 2004 documentary Festival Express. The vibrant pace of ‘Tell Mama’ rocked and rolled like the train carrying the musicians and roadies across Canada during the three-date tour chronicled in the film. ‘Cry Baby’ became another stellar example of Joplin’s vocal prowess and dramatic flair. In just a few minutes, she moved from its blues power base to stops that showed touching vulnerability and comic timing; all used to strengthen the final outcome. Both numbers became standouts, even among such company as the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy, Flying Burrito Brothers and more.
My desire for a Festival Express soundtrack never materialized but disc two of this Legacy Edition of Pearl fills in that gap. Nearly 80 minutes of material are taken from that tour including both tracks featured in the film. It should be noted that Joplin’s back up band, Full Tilt Boogie, presents the most capable support she may have ever experienced onstage. The band can tear it up (i.e. the tight run through ‘Tell Mama’ or the solo section of ‘Half Moon’) but it’s obvious that the five musicians are there to support not outshine the singer standing front and center.
That same approach by Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie can be heard on the studio recordings that make up "Pearl," which according to the album’s liner notes by her tour manager, John Byrne Cooke, came about following the Festival Express and other live dates.
Off smack and enthusiastic about her band and the album’s producer, Paul Rothchild, Joplin raised her creative self to a higher level, making Pearl sound as potent today as it did following its original release. Still, bad habits have an unfortunate way of returning and Joplin didn’t live to see the final results. Following her death, the musicians and Rothchild remained committed to finish the album. The clarity presented here enhances the performances of familiar fare such as ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and ‘Mercedes Benz’ and other numbers that deserve a better fate than to be shoved to the classic rock radio graveyard (‘Get It While You Can,’ ‘Half Moon’ and more). The half dozen bonus tracks do not add major depth to the strong set before them — a peek of Joplin having a little fun in the studio and some alternate versions of Pearl numbers.
Sadly, we know the final chapter that Joplin wrote for herself nearly 35 years ago. And while Pearl: Legacy Edition underscores the sadness of her loss by offering hints of all the possibilities that could have been realized in her future — straight ahead blues, gospel, R&B or even jazz albums — all of which were sewn within the fabric of her post-Summer Of Love rock ‘n’ roll strategy, at least we have this memento of her comet as it passed through and made an impact just before it burst into flames and incinerated.