Wednesday, August 14, 2013

One Night with Janis Joplin

Whether we know it or not, we want our blues singers to be miserable.
In fact, we want them to die.

--One Night With Janis Joplin

Our musical memories tour continued this week with a trip to Washington’s Arena Stage to spend One Night With Janis Joplin before it heads to Broadway this fall. I arrived with some skepticism about just another tribute show for boomers willing to pay for nostalgia.
I left with my ears ringing and the semi-exhaustion of a rock concert.

My first clue that we were in for something different was the eight-piece band (all with 60s style shoulder length hair) which sounded as good or better than I remember the muddy studio albums from Big Brother & The Holding Company. And they were much more versatile, easily moving back and forth from ballad to hard rock to blues.

The star, Mary Bridget Davies, embodies Janis so convincingly (after a national tour of Love,Janis and tours with the current Big Brother band) that you are no longer making comparisons with the original; you are just enjoying the ride. She can move from sad reflection to foot-stomping, hair-flinging blues shouting in the space of a guitar lick.

After warming us up with My Baby and Down on Me, she tore into Piece of My Heart like a freight train out of control. It was all the audience could do to chant, “Come on, Come on,” and wait for the aural crash. Not sure whether it was the rush of nostalgia or the authentic sound but it gave me goose bumps.

The musical numbers were tied together by soliloquies in which Janis talked about her childhood (listening to the Chantelles on 45s) her love of the blues (The blues is just a bad woman feeling good) or her frustrating search for love (No man will be able to do to me what that audience does).

Woven through her musings were reflections on her musical influences and heroines. This is where the show kicked everything up a notch in the person of Sabrina Elayne Carter in the role of “blues singer.”
Her opera-trained voice and fabulous costumes traveled a parallel track as she took on the songs of Janis’ personal heroines. Starting with Summertime from Porgy and Bess, Carter took turns as Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Each time the songs segued from the traditional versions to a Davies/Joplin blues-rock interpretation. Carter’s beautiful voice often overshadowed Davies’ but the contrast seemed intentional. The smooth stylist versus the blues belter; the traditional versus the rebel. When they teamed up on Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark to close the first act, it was like a battle of the bands.

Songs of the second act underscored the irony of Joplin’s instant fame and personal demons with a cloud of irony hanging over several, including I Shall Be Released, Me and Bobby McGee, Ball and Chain and the incredibly sad Stay With Me.

This show was about the music not the tragic ending but throughout the monologues Janis is reminding us of what the blues are about. It’s the carrot, you never get to, she notes. Or this thought, which seemed apt given the age of the audience.

The blues are about time. One day you wake up and look in the mirror and wonder where it all went. That’s the blues.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than four decades since Janis left the live stage that she so electrified with her full tilt boogie approach to music and to life.

Despite the passage of time, we still know all the words to Mercedes Benz so we sang it a cappella back to her as part of the encore (and standing ovation) and as a thank you for the music and the memories.


  1. What a treat! I shall have the same tomorrow night when SWMBO and I go to a concert with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.

    But I still wish I could hear Janis . . . one more time.

  2. Wow, wish I could have been there. I'm a big fan of her music, though I never got to see her live. Super post.

  3. Thanks Steve. Given the sketchy quality of her early studio albums, it was the next best thing to hearing her live.

  4. You had a great night there! Looks like a great show- hope it plays well on Broadway, but I'd rather see it tour in the west.

    I interviewed Janis when our station promoted her concert. She was not pretty, but she effused a sensuality that was extraordinary. Her performance-heart, soul, interpretation and
    a totality of focus was something to see. She certainly is worthy of a stage remembrance.

    Nice review.