The American Music Masters tribute to Janis Joplin, Kozmic Blues: The Life and Music of Janis Joplin, culminated Saturday night with a tribute concert at PlayhouseSquare’s State Theater. The concert ended with Bobby Wood’s terrific house band playing “Get It While You Can,” a Jerry Ragovoy song that Janis Joplin recorded on Pearl. I felt such gratitude to the performers as they came out for a curtain call—they had all brought their best to tell Janis Joplin’s story. Over the course of the night, they showed us Janis’s deep musical roots in blues and folk, her galvanizing rock music, and her love for the soul music of her day.
An early highlight of the show was Guy Clark’s “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” a song he recorded on his debut album, Old No. 1 in 1975. Although the song wasn’t written about Janis, it was a perfect song to capture her desire to leave Texas and make a space for herself out in the world. Guy and Janis played the same circuit in Houston and Austin, Texas in 1965, and he recalled meeting her back then. Janis also crossed paths with Roky Erickson, who played a blistering “You’re Gonna Miss Me” on Saturday night—imagine if Janis had gotten her hands on that song! Janis’s fellow travelers, Powell St. John (who played with her during her University of Texas-Austin days), Country Joe McDonald, Bob Neuwirth, and Nick Gravenites (who wrote “Buried Alive in the Blues” and “Work Me Lord”) brought the personal connection to her that is part of what makes American Music Masters so unique. Gregg Rolie and Michael Carabello, founding members of Santana, shared the bill several times with Big Brother and the Holding Company in San Francisco in 1968. Their performance of “Evil Ways” “Nobody to Depend On” showed the diversity of the San Francisco sound.
Bettye LaVette, who recorded “Piece of My Heart” in 1969, did a soulful version of the song along with a smoldering “A Woman Left Lonely” (written by Dan Penn and Rock Hall Inductee Spooner Oldham). Her performance connected Janis’s story to other soul singers like Erma Franklin and Lorraine Ellison. Susan Tedeschi’s version of “Tell Mama” brought the spirit of Etta James in the house, and Tedeschi’s interpretations of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “Kozmic Blues” brought the crowd to their feet. Ditto with Carolyn Wonderland’s version of the gospel classic “Down on Me,” which Janis learned from Odetta.
Two artists sang songs inspired by Janis: Country Joe McDonald performed “Janis” from Country Joe and the Fish’s album I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die (1967) and Nona Hendryx worked up a version of “Night Bird” which Labelle recorded on Nightbirds (1974). But no one expected to get a brand new song for Janis written for the occasion. Lucinda Williams closed out the night with a new song inspired by Janis’s life tentatively called “Difficult Child.” Played solo on guitar, it was a poignant ending to the night and a testament to Janis Joplin’s legacy. Lucinda’s set also included “Me and Bobby McGee” and a stripped down, bluesy version of “Ball and Chain” that showed the range of music that Janis Joplin recorded.
Thanks to all the artists who traveled to Cleveland to take part in a tribute to Janis Joplin that showcased her depth and significance as a singer and artist. And thanks to Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’s sister and brother, who supported our work and even jumped on stage with their daughters for a sweet version of “Mercedes Benz” with Bob Neuwirth.