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Love, Janis

Get It While You Can

Five minutes into "Love, Janis", and I’m totally like “Whoa. Dude. The 60s.” Unlike many of you out there, I was around then and still remember a lot of it, like hearing Janis on the radio every day, along with Jimmy and Aretha and Carlos Santana and Sam and Dave and the Doors and the Mamas and the Papas and a lot more, all on the same station. I can honestly say that "Love, Janis" made me remember what acid flashbacks (or at least what we thought were acid flashbacks) felt like.

The show perfectly captures the mood of the late 60s and early 70s without becoming overly nostalgic or slavishly trying to reproduce the details. And for some strange reason, (maybe because now, like then, we’re mired in another miserable overseas war waged by another fatally misguided president), it seems to be cool to really capture the mood of the era again. That plus the fact that most Boomers (myself included,) exhibit two common traits: a refusal to grow old, ever, and an unquenchable craving for ecstatic experience. This made it okay to relive the brief moment when artists like Janis Joplin exploded onto the scene with their powerful blend of blues, psychedelic rock and hippie philosophy.

"Love, Janis", inspired by the book of the same name by Janis Joplin’s sister, Laura Joplin, follows a simple format: she speaks to us through her music (16 songs in all plus one instrumental interlude) and, between songs, through soliloquy delivered by the two actresses who play her, sharing the stage frequently (I’m not sure that still qualifies as soliloquy, but it works.) The voice of reality is played by an unseen, omnipresent interviewer, who questions Janis from offstage. The entire spoken text is taken directly from letters to her family and from her media interviews.

What I liked best about "Love, Janis" is its honest and direct portrayal of one of the 20th century’s best blues singers. The actress that played the singing parts, Katrina Chester, channels Janis in a way that captures the essence of Janis and her music and completely transcends the nostalgia: it’s a flashback, to be sure, but it’s alive and relevant today. She knows that the blues is a classical art form, and recognizes that great musicians, like great actors, in order to really master their art must project it through their own souls. She is supported by a first class band, especially Joel Hoekstra on lead guitar. His tone, phrasing, dynamic range, articulation and total feel for the music are completely mindblowing. I wondered if Big Brother and the Holding Company ever sounded so good.

After thirty five or more years, I appreciated the chance to take another look at Janis’ music. We definitely grooved to her back in the day, no doubt, but because she was part of a long parade of awesome talent then, she perhaps didn’t get quite the attention or recognition she deserved. It’s interesting to speculate how successful she might have been had she been black. Listening to her music again, I was immediately reminded of how much she owed to the great ladies of jazz and blues that she admired and absorbed: Ma Rainey, Pearl Bailey, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and many others. I can’t think of another white blues singer who so completely embodied the blues. The interviewer asks “What do you want to be remembered for?” and she responds that she would like to think that her music was part of what made the “whole black and white thing break down.” Beyond her problems with drugs and stardom and identity crises and dealing with a voracious and fickle public, an important part of her was a serious artist who wanted to heal the world through music.

Unbelievable singing; mega kickass band; trippy lightshow; multiple serious goosebump moments; ecstatic, transcendent flashbacks. Check it out.

Love, Janis
At Marines Memorial Theatre
through September 3
Tickets $35-$67