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Music

Revisit Janis Joplin's only gig on British soil

@TylerGolsen

Janis Joplin was in a place to prove herself during the spring of 1969. The Summer of Love had come and gone, and Joplin had left Big Brother and the Holding Company just a few months earlier. There was no sign of a solo album just yet, and instead, her management thought that a European tour would establish her as a solo artist.

For the run of concerts, Joplin was heavily influenced by fellow Monterey Pop Festival performer Otis Redding and modelled the first incarnation of her Kozmic Blues Band after Booker T. and the M.G.’s with the Bar-Keys horn section. It turned Joplin slightly away from the psychedelic rock she had played with the Holding Company and towards a more soulful and bluesy sound. Joplin and her band embarked to New York for a few warm-up shows.

The results were shambolic. Joplin and the band were under-rehearsed, and the singer’s rapid descent into heroin addiction did nothing to elevate her performances. The shows were panned, and Joplin was left unsure of her ability to make it on her own. Rather than concede to the pressure, Joplin forged ahead and decided to attack her European shows with a new tenacity that she hadn’t shown in her New York shows.

The subsequent shows in Germany and Sweden were tighter and received glowing reviews from the press, but Joplin was frustrated by the lack of interaction from the audience. During her San Francisco days, crowds would dance, sing, and celebrate as performers fed off their energy. Joplin was especially attuned to crowd energy, and her performances often suffered when they couldn’t match her harried howl (she managed to rally the placid Monterey crowd around her but failed to wake the sleeping hippies at Woodstock).

Things were different when Joplin arrived in London for a show at the Royal Albert Hall. She wasn’t even sure if British audiences knew who she was, considering that Big Brother and the Holding Company had never toured outside the US, but the reception she received that night indicated that they had been waiting to embrace Joplin.

At this point, Joplin didn’t have a ton of original material to trot out. Never the most prolific songwriter, Joplin instead turned other songs on their heads and transformed them to fit into her unique style. Her concert at the Royal Albert Hall was no different, and the setlist mostly consisted of an eclectic mix of covers and Big Brother tunes. Ranging from girl group tunes (The Chantels’ ‘Maybe’), Gershwin compositions (‘Summertime’) and unimpeachable signature songs like ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Ball ‘n Chain’, Joplin finally got an audience to connect with.

“No one’s ever got up and danced there before,” Joplin would say after the show. “No one’s ever done anything there before, and they did it!” Joplin and her band continued to ride the momentum as they returned to the US, where Joplin went about firmly establishing herself as one of the great performers in the world. However, her drug habits would continue to cause impediments to her success.

There was a brief time in early 1970 where Joplin appeared to be making a change for the better. She travelled to Brazil, where she kicked her vices and became involved with a young American tourist by the name of David Niehaus. Niehaus unsuccessfully attempted to convince Joplin to take time off from her burdensome touring schedule, and when she returned to the US, Joplin once again resumed her drug and alcohol addictions.

On October 4, 1970, Joplin was found dead in her hotel room from a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Just three days before, Joplin recorded what would be her final song before her death: the a cappella anti-consumerist anthem ‘Mercedes Benz’.

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