Although Janis has said that one of the reasons she left her last group was that she was always fighting the volume of the horns, she misses the punch that the horns gave her. "They gave me that umph when I needed it." But it's unlikely that her audience will miss them. The lead guitar and organ fill in beautifully where the horn lines were, and they are a better harmonic match for her voice.
When Janis left Big Brother, it was like a marriage that broke up, and ever since she had been looking for a partner that had the virtues of spontaneity and freshness without being amateurish. Her new group comes as close to that as time will allow. If they are not quite what Big Brother was to Janis, it is perhaps because they were not part of the original Panhandle Park mythology. But, as musicians, they are more together than Big Brother. Also, Janis can relate to them: "These guys are on the same wavelength as me," Janis says "It's more of a family thing again."
John Till (lead) and Brad Campbell (bass) are the only two members Janis took with her from the last band. Brad had been with the second band since the beginning, but John joined Janis toward the end, playing rhythym guitar. He is a subtle and fast blues guitarist who joined Ronnie Hawkins band three years ago when he got out of high school.
"Ronnie likes to get you real young and brainwash you. He'll make you think you couldn't play with anyone else even if you wanted to, and then he puts you in a black suit and a store-bought hair cut, and you just stay there until you've got the guts to pull out." Brad, who also played bass in the last group came from the now defunct Paupers (also managed by Albert Grossman) where he replaced Denny Gerard, and his bass is a solid match for Clark Pierson's drumming.
Richard Bell (piano) also comes from Ronnie Hawkins band, and both he and John Till backed the legendary Canadian harp player and singer King Biscuit Boy, otherwise known as Richard Newall. Bell's piano is both honky-tonky and jazzy and is a light improvisational element in a group that is heavily rhythmic. Richard was in college when Hawkins offered him "$50 a week and his laundry" and gave him 30 seconds to make up his mind. He took it. For all the unsavory stories attached to his name, Ronnie Hawkins, like a Canadian John Mayall, seems to attract and develop an incredible number of really talented musicians.
All the members of Janis' current band are Canadians, except for Clark Pierson, who played drums with Linn County. Janis discovered Clark playing in the house band of the Galaxy, a San Francisco topless club. His drumming has a funky, heavy bump and grind beat, a perfect match for Janis' raunchy voice. "You know, I've had drummers that used to go-a-one, a-two, a-three ...," says Janis, "Clark just slams right into it."
"They just weren't happening for me," Janis says about her last band. "They just didn't get me off. You know, I have to have the umph, I've got to feel it, because if it's not getting through to me, the audience sure as hell aren't going to feel it either. This band is solid, their sound is so heavy you could lean on it, and that means I can go further out, and extend myself. It's together, man, that's what it is!"
Janis is obviously happy with the new group and it shows in her singing that is more controlled and at the same time more inventive than it was a year ago. The new group puts out a wall of sound that is a perfect foil for Janis' incredible range and modulation. In its new context, her voice can go through its almost impossible series of changes: laughing and crying in the same line, singing harmony with itself, cracking up, and finally, taking off into the breathtaking and suspenseful endings, a mind-blowing collage of sound patterns that make her now, more than ever, one of the really great gospel/blues singers of all time.
Back home in Larkspur, Janis talked about her future plans. "Well, you know, honey, we're still on tour. Next week we're going to be in the L.A. area—Santa Ana, San Bernardino and one of those others Sans, I don't know—and after that ... well, if that Mt. Fuji gig comes off we'll be there in August."
Records? "Well, we'll be cuttin' a single as soon as we can get some studio, but I don't know what it will be. My producer's got one idea and I've got another, so we'll have to see. And an album ... well, we've got to fit recording time around the gigs. You know, we rehearse, and I sing four nights a week, and my voice can't take much more. We'll sneak into a record studio sometime for the album, but I don't know when. We'll figure it out."
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