Singer Janis Joplin is still one of the most iconic images of the late 1960’s. She had a high husky voice paired with an earthy yet explosive stage presence. When Janis sang the blues she felt every word she sang thus affecting audiences in an emotional way. Joplin was a shooting star. She hit the scene in 1967 and had fallen by October of 1970 when she was found dead in a hotel room. Yet like a number of others from that era Janis’s influence lived on through her music. Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Janis lived the blues but left the world with a lasting legacy.
A Night With Janis Joplin gives contemporary fans a rose-colored glimpse at the artist. The show unfolds in a concert format with Janis sharing her life story through spoken words and songs. The focus was on positive moments and memorable music. Yes, the show hints at the drinking and Joplin’s loneliness but the emphasis was on Janis’s artistry and passion. We had the pleasure of attending a commanding performance of A Night With Janis Joplin on April 15, 2016 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. Friday was one of two days that the traveling show moved through Music City.
The stage set up was basic as the Joplinaires with the Band opened with the sassy “Combination of Two”. Janis played by the convincing Mary Bridget Davies strolled out to share with us her musical influences before Joplin with Etta James presented “Tell Mama”. Janis recalled wearing out 45’s especially those from the girl groups that she totally related to. “Maybe” sang by The Chantels reflected that signature 1950’s sound that spoke to Janis. Throughout the show other woman singers were portrayed by the equally gifted Cicily Daniels, Tawny Dolley, Q. Smith and Jennifer Leigh Warren.
Janis mentioned that she grew up in Texas. Her mom loved Broadway shows so on Saturdays which was cleaning day Mom would play those records so the girls could sing and sashay around the house as they did their chores. Early musicals such as Hello Dolly and West Side Story impacted the impressionable Janis. Next, “Summertime” presented by the Blues Woman first in an almost operatic version was countered by the familiar yet very different cover that Janis had made famous. Odetta was another artist that Janis loved. “Down On Me” sung by both was a compelling contrast that revealed how Joplin rearranged songs to make them uniquely her own.
Janis was also a visual artist. Some of her work was displayed on the screen above the stage during the concert. Images and lighting were also used for additional effects. Blues touched Janis in a big way and there was nobody bigger than Bessie Smith who showed us how it’s done with the classic “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin in sparkling attire joined Janis and Company for a spirited “Spirit in the Dark” that had the folks at the TPAC on their feet. Thus closing the first act on a feisty note.
The second act built on the momentum of the first with killer versions of “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)”, “Little Girl Blue” and “Me and Bobby McGee”. “Cry Baby” with the legendary Nina Simon was compelling and Janis hit it out of the park with a ballsy “Ball and Chain”. “Stay With Me” alluded to Joplin’s feelings of isolation and her death was handled with the hopeful and up-tempo “I’m Gonna Rock My Way To Heaven”. Janis’s encore was the still popular “Mercedes Benz”.
A Night With Janis Joplin was a celebration of Janis Joplin’s life. It may have been a rose-colored version but it’s better to remember people at their best. Joplin was the best when she sang the blues but part of the reason she was so great is that she truly felt the blues like so many of her predecessors. A Night With Janis Joplin was similar to attending a concert with Janis at the top of her game backed by a polished group of players. The show honored the legacy of the legend.
The TPAC is located in the James K. Polk Cultural Center at 505 Deaderick Street in downtown Nashville, occupying an entire city block between 5th and 6th Avenues and Deaderick and Union Streets. The venue has three distinct halls along with the free Tennessee State Museum. The TPAC will be hosting a whole season of Broadway productions with the next being Mamma Mia (April 26-May 1, 2016) and for a more scary drama Alice Cooper on May 02, 2016.