Grace Slick - vocals; Marty Balin - vocals, percussion; Paul Kantner - vocals, guitar; Jorma Kaukonen - lead guitar; Jack Casady - bass; Joey Covington - drums
As the 1960s dissolved into the 1970s, the political climate in America was reaching a turbulent peak. The music of Jefferson Airplane, which strongly reflected the peace and love ethic of the 1960s counterculture, was now reflecting this turbulent political climate. The group was also going through internal changes with the vocal and musician factions creating songs independently of each other. Although everyone still brought their work back to the band, the Airplane was developing several personalities, which in retrospect, clearly point to the future paths of the various members. Kaukonen and Casady had begun actively performing as Hot Tuna, both independently and occasionally as an opening act for the Airplane. Their first acoustic album was released in 1970, becoming the first of many offshoot projects by band members. Paul Kantner was also in the process of releasing his first solo album, "Blows Against the Empire," which would surface in October of 1970, featuring contributions from both Airplane members and many of his friends including Jerry Garcia and David Crosby. Frontman Marty Balin was still on board, but was becoming increasingly dismayed and would soon exit the group.
The most distinct sonic change during 1970 was the addition of Joey Covington, who had recently replaced Spencer Dryden on drums. One immediate result was an increase in intensity in Jack Casady's bass playing, which had always been muscular, but was now becoming even more so. By the latter half of the year, Covington would also begin contributing material to band's onstage repertoire. Covington lacked Dryden's finesse and tasteful restraint, but his more muscular approach to drumming contributed a new forceful dynamic and raw edge to the band.
All of these elements would have a profound effect on the group's recordings and live performances. Although the group would experience further personnel changes and soldier on for another two years, 1970 would be the last year that the founding members of the classic lineup (Balin, Slick, Kantner, Kaukonen, and Casady) would all perform together for nearly two decades. Despite the increasingly schizophrenic nature of the group during that tumultuous year, they often delivered powerful performances.
A prime example was a two-night stand in September on their home turf in San Francisco, when the band performed live at Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore West. Both the September 14th and 15th performances were recorded, and despite being a Monday and Tuesday night, both shows display the group in strong form. Although the end was certainly drawing near, these two performances remain as some of the last high quality recordings of Balin, Slick, Kantner, Kaukonen, and Cassidy performing an entire show together on stage. Featuring both a choice selection of songs from the group's 1960s catalogue, as well as quite a bit of new material, these shows can be perceived as the core classic lineup's last hurrah and are well worth a listen.
Despite occurring on a Monday night, the September 14, 1970 performance captures Jefferson Airplane in remarkably great form and seemingly in no hurry as they deliver a lengthy set that features plenty of stretching out and cohesive, focused performances. Paul Kantner sets the tone, prior to the opening number, by dedicating the night to LSD guru, Timothy Leary, who he informs the audience, "just escaped." This solicits a rousing response from the hometown audience as the group launch into the politically charged anthem that kicked off their Volunteers album, "We Can Be Together."
The Grace Slick penned A-side of the group's most recent single, "Mexico," follows. Written in response to President Nixon's marijuana importation initiative, Operation Intercept, and paying homage to the group's pot smuggling and LSD manufacturing friends, this song was certainly doomed from a radio censorship standpoint and was not included on any of their albums (until a rarity collection was later issued). "Mexico" was heard by few outside of concerts at this time, and this and the following night's performance (which will be available soon here at Wolfgang's) are as tight and focused as the band likely ever did. The "Crown Of Creation" that follows is a wonderful example of Casady and Covington's chemistry, which drives this performance and brings out the best in the band.
Paul Kantner next introduces a new Joey Covington song before Covington navigates the group (on lead vocals as well as drums) into a boogie titled "Whatever The Old Man Does (Is Always Right)." Unreleased by the group, this features some fine contributions from Kaukonen and Casady, and although Covington's vocals were never his strength, this is one of his more interesting efforts.
One of the many peak moments of this set surfaces next in the form of a highly expanded jam on "The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil." Beginning with an intentional howling wall of feedback and distortion from Kaukonen and featuring a sizzling extended bass solo from Casady, this is a powerhouse performance both instrumentally and vocally that clocks in at three times the length of the original 1967 single. A fine new Marty Balin number follows in the form of "Emergency." Clearly influenced by the high-energy soul singers of the '60s, this is an interesting performance not only for Balin's penetrating lead vocal, but also for the way the musicians adapt this to their own way of doing things.
Fans of electric Hot Tuna will be delighted by the next number, as Kaukonen and Casady tackle Lightnin' Hopkins "Come Back Baby." Kaukonen's passion for this number is obvious throughout and hearing it in the context of the Airplane, prior to Joey Covington introducing violinist Papa John Creach to the musical mixture makes this a fascinating listen. Covington's drums next lead the way into the group's biggest hit, "Somebody to Love." This contains an interesting improvisation, as following the initial verse and chorus, Slick veers off for a few minutes with the band vamping behind her. However, it is most enjoyable when they tear back into the song proper and continue wailing on the original arrangement with Slick and Balin's vocals twisting around each other. A thoroughly engaging take of "Wooden Ships" is up next, with everyone equally contributing. A writing collaboration between David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Paul Kantner, this is a tale of post-apocalyptic survival that continues to build in intensity as the song progresses. Kaukonen is particularly inspired during the instrumental break before they sail off into Kantner's soaring coda of "Go ride the music."
Three new additions to the band's stage repertoire turn up next, beginning with Balin fronting the group on "Up or Down," written by Jorma's brother Peter Kaukonen. This is a promising new rocker that sounds like Balin fronting electric Hot Tuna, which is essentially what it is. Grace Slick improvises a little prelude that precedes another new number, the B-side of the "Mexico" single, "Have You Seen the Saucers?" A powerful new Kantner number, this clearly foreshadows the political commentary and science fiction he would explore further on his first solo project, Blows Against the Empire. The third new song begins with Covington making police siren noises, prior to the band rocking into "The Man (Bludgeon of a Bluecoat). This Airplane rarity was recorded in the studio around this time (with Covington recruiting Little Richard on the session to play piano!) but remains unreleased.
The last two songs of the set return to classic Airplane material, beginning with a franticly paced performance of Fred Neil's "Other Side of This Life" that features some fine jamming before they bookend the set with the closing anthem and title track from their most recent album, Volunteers. This certainly reflects the politically charged climate of the times and now contains a rallying cry to the audience to "fight back!"
The home turf audience has no intention of letting the evening end here and as Slick and Kantner bid the audience goodnight and invite them to the following night, they howl for more. When the Airplane returns to the stage for an encore, they are in the same mindset and proceed to play for another half an hour! What follows is one of the band's most satisfying encores ever, beginning with a charged up take on Slick's "Greasy Heart." An unusual version of another new number is next, as Balin front's the band on "You Wear Your Dresses Too Short." Unlike nearly every other known recording of this song, this version is slow and methodical, making it a particularly interesting listen. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, this features plenty of stretching out with Balin fully engaged for nearly every minute of it. Following this number, Slick humorously questions the meaning of the previous number's lyrics as Kaukonen delivers an equally humorous ditty on his guitar. Then the most remarkable and surprising performance occurs as the Airplane launches into the second ever performance of "Starship" from Kantner's forthcoming solo album Blows Against the Empire. The only time this song was performed independently, this is a fascinating performance that is dramatically different from the familiar studio recording. The lyrics have yet to be finalized; the order of the verses is different, and although clearly unrehearsed, it's a delight to hear Kaukonen, Casady, and Covington backing Slick and Kantner on this highly compelling number. Thankfully the tape stock on the soundboard master recording captured the entire encore up to this point, but unfortunately ran out just prior to the final song of the night, a fiery take on the Surrealistic Pillow classic, "3/5 of a Mile In 10 Seconds," which is patched in from an alternate room recording to complete the show. Here, everyone is equally engaged, with Slick, Kantner, and Balin singing forcefully and the musicians packing a serious punch to conclude this remarkable night.
Written by Alan Bershaw