As rock icons go, Janis Joplin has been one of the more mercurial, her fitful, over-the-top presence — and voice — so difficult to reproduce that only the staunchest of tribute-minded folks have tried. At this, a somewhat belated 60th birthday bash for the singer, who died in 1970, some of her closest collaborators teamed with a passel of her acolytes for a wildly uneven show that while often strained did have its share of lightning-in-a-bottle moments.
The program marked the first time the two bands that recorded with Joplin shared a bill. Although guitarist Sam Andrew provided a linchpin for both Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues Band, the latter — augmented with a horn section — was more straightforward and considerably less prone to throwing in clinkers.
In large part, the same dividing line could be drawn between the array of singers who took on the late singer’s material over the course of a long, rambling show. Some — like the B-52s’ Kate Pierson, whose “Me and Bobby McGee” matched virtually every inflection of Joplin’s hit rendition — played things frustratingly close to the vest. Others — new wave throwback Lene Lovich, for instance — went overboard in trying to quirk up material that was never intended as camp.
Evening’s best perfs came from those who knew how to capture the spirit of the honoree without treading in karaoke-bar terrain. Not coincidentally, women of Joplin’s generation hit the mark more solidly than the younger set. Annisette, front woman of hard rockers Savage Rose, captured a good bit of the frenetic desperation of “Move Over,” while Genya Ravan (an East Coast Joplin contemporary that many considered her equal) tore fiercely through “Cry Baby.”
Success wasn’t limited to the over-50 set, however. Simone, whose late mother, Nina Simone, was a palpable influence on a young Joplin, staked her claim to “Summertime,” a song that all three women have been able to spin uniquely. Likewise, local gal Sophia Ramos gave a practically Pentecostal tenor to “Get It While You Can.”
The length of the program and the only marginally harmonious interplay between band and singers created something of a sense of overkill. Then again, Joplin herself was never accused of being a paragon of consistency.