It has righteously ranked my ass to see the shabby treatment accorded Big Brother and the Holding Company over the course of the past four years. In the days when the name of Janis Joplin was fastened to every lip, Big Brother were referred to as “the boys in the band” (that is, if they were referred to at all). And when they returned from the dead with a splendid album last year (Be A Brother), everyone tripped over their tongues crediting the triumph to Nick Gravenites. Well, friends, the day of reckoning is finally here: Big Brother has a new album and, with no help from anybody, prove once and for all that they are a whale of a rock and roll band.
They do get a bit of assistance from some selected friends — Mike Finnegan on keyboards, David Schallock (a former member of the band) on guitar, and old Nick even takes a vocal — but the success of this album rests squarely on the shoulders of the band itself. Sam Andrew, whose singing has always been on the unruly side, is exhibiting some healthy vocal discipline. His guitar playing is perfect for the band, while Peter Albin (the band’s original bassist) has secured himself very nicely in the second guitar slot. Former lead guitarist James Gurley (a native Detroiter, his bizarre leads were the recorded precursor of a whole lotta Motor City musical madness) has grasped the bass, and David Getz’ drumming (with particular regard to his cymbal work) is now the glue that holds the band together.
The title of “Nu Boogaloo Jam” makes obvious reference to a Marin County jam band (staffed partly by some Big Brother people) called the Nu Boogaloo Express, and this defines pretty well the essence of Big Brother: a slightly raunchy, definitely maniacal band of rock and roll desperados who seem to always be having a good time regardless of the situation. “Nu Boogaloo Jam” is the kind of corrugated, ass-tight funk that one can all too seldom locate outside of a few choice bars these lean days, and much of the album leans in this direction. “How Hard It Is,” “Shine On,” “House On Fire” and “You’ve Been Talkin’ ‘Bout Me Baby” all fall into this broad category. It is strongly guitar-oriented material, with a joy in basic rhythm that would seem to suggest a soulful influence filtered through a little acid and a lot of tequila. (They even throw in a little juke-joint organ to padlock the point.) Everything falls together best on “You’ve Been Talkin’,” with its fine guitar and an organ which forces the flow of the chorus and fills out the sound superbly.
If you can get past an introduction like “You are my queen of the Nile,” then you’ll find “Black Widow Spider” to be an excellent change-of-pace ballad. It features fine use of three interwoven guitar figures and some hot vocal work from Kathy McDonald (who is, thank God for small miracles, not Clydie King, Vanetta Fields or Rita Coolidge). And when you realize that a black widow spider is “the one who kills her mate,” the song resolves itself lyrically as well.
As for the album’s three instrumentals. “Last Band On Side One” could easily have made a fine backdrop for a European travelogue, but stands clearly out of musical context here. “Promise Her Anything” is nice enough, a simple David Schallock exercise in meter dynamics, but doesn’t pack an overly powerful punch. They are right on target with “Maui,” however, a song that conveys precise images with some expertly co-ordinated guitar and clear-cutting cymbals.
“Buried Alive In The Blues” is a good Nick Gravenites tune, but simply by that it is not really a Big Brother song at all. Nick wrote it, he sings it, and the horn licks which dominate it are distinctly of his doing. Horns also pop up on “Nu Boogaloo Jam,” but I fail to see what function they serve. The brass (and even the organ in most instances) are unnecessary, for Big Brother is fully capable of developing such extraneous passages within the existing framework of the band. This would also serve to effectively stifle any possible alibis which their detractors might arm themselves with.
The pen and ink portrait of the group which graces the cover of How Hard It is is as striking as the music on the inside, except that the darkened visages makes the band seem faceless. And there are few bands working today who can display a better-defined or pleasing personality than Big Brother. Peter Wolf likes to say that “it’s time to get crazy, baby,” and I’m sure that among the first in line to second that statement would be Big Brother and the Holding Company.