THE BALLAD OF YOU AND ME AND… Jefferson Airplane

Four new, at times riveting, deep-vault
live releases demonstrate what the early fuss was all about. Hint: it wasn’t
just drug advocacy and up-against-the-wall politics.

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

If Grace
Slick hadn’t replaced Signe Anderson in Jefferson Airplane, that modest little
folk rock band might only be remembered as the band that once included “the
crazy guy from Moby Grape” on drums (also known as Skip Spence). Maybe Paul
Kantner would be better remembered as an American doppelganger of English nerds
Gordon Waller (of Peter & Gordon) and Chad Stuart (of Chad & Jeremy).
Marty Balin might’ve found a different place to chew up the scenery or gotten
sensitive years before he released “Hearts.” Acid rock would not have
crystallized and women singers would have had to look elsewhere for a fearless
role model who could both articulate the revolution and rock out.

 

At
least, it’s easy to ponder these and other possibilities while making your way
through four new, and at times riveting, releases from Collector’s Choice (Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66
Late Show – Signe’s Farewell; Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/16/66 Early
& Late Shows – Grace’s Debut; Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66
& 11/27/66 – We Have Ignition,
2CD; Return to the Matrix 2/1/68, 2CD). Together they document the Airplane’s
rather quick evolution from a folk rock band with potential to figureheads in
the San Francisco
scene of the late ’60s. Perhaps only die-hard Airplane fans will find all four sets
mandatory, since many songs overlap and the arrangements don’t vary too much
from set to set. The extended jams and blues excursions have their moments but they’re
fairly dispensable. Taken individually, though, each volume has more than
enough to merit listening.

 

Signe’s Farewell proves
that the band that made 1966’s Jefferson Airplane Takes Off already had a lot going for it before Slick came along.
Recorded at Anderson’s farewell show with the band, it stands up as more than
just a historical curiosity. By this time, original drummer Spence had moved on
to the guitar and Moby Grape and his clunky beats were replaced by Spencer
Dryden’s steady but basic work.

 

The
band had yet to shed their folkie earnestness for something more radical: “Tobacco
Road” was nowhere near as raucous as the version recorded by the Blues Magoos,
but the fire was there throughout the set. Anderson was a belter similar in
style to brassy Judy Henske, though her role was limited to harmonies, a verse
here and there and one or two spotlight songs. In fact, when Balin announces
that “our girl singer” is leaving the band towards the end of the night, it
sounds like she isn’t even on the stage at the time. When she steps up, her
wishes to the audience evoke something much more innocent that what was the
come. “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and bounce balloons. I love
you,” she says. Decked out on the cover in ponytails, matching poncho and
mini-skirt and white go-go boots, she was no Slick.

 

The set
leans heavily on the debut album and a few songs that were left off and
released years later. The opening nine minute “Jam” holds up fairly well due in
no small part to Jorma Kaukonen’s patent on psychedelic blues guitar and the
underrated bass work of Jack Casady, who consistently blends melodic lines with
a beautifully overdriven tone similar to Jack Bruce on all four collections.

 

The
band didn’t waste any time and the following evening; former Great Society
vocalist Slick made her debut with the band, which appears on the next CD. She initially
stuck close to Anderson’s approach, even using the same style of belting in
tunes like “High Flyin’ Bird.” The band sounds like they’re still adjusting to
the new addition through the two sets. Some of the harmonies go south on “Let’s
Get Together,” but “It’s No Secret,” (a song that appears on all but one of
these volumes) comes together. The spirit gets the better of Balin, who seems
like he wants to channel Otis Redding, making some of the tracks get a little
tedious.  “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds,”
which debuted the night before, is a casualty of his plastic soul, though the
band attacks it with more precision than the previous evening’s plodding
version. More impressive is Balin’s show of restraint in “And I Like It.”
Kaukonen’s take on “Kansas City,” credits songwriters Leiber and Stoller, but his
lyrics barely touches on any version of their original, and Dryden’s drumming
keeps this blues jam from very getting far off the ground.

 

The two
nights on We Have Ignition jump ahead
less than six weeks, but by then the group was putting the finishing touches on
Surrealistic Pillow, their sophomore breakthrough
and they knew they were on to something big. Surprisingly, neither of these two
nights at the Fillmore included a performance of “Somebody to Love,” one of the
album’s most popular songs. “White Rabbit,” however, appears twice, both
sounding similar but both also capturing all the tension-and-release qualities
that make it such an enduring classic. Each night still leaned heavily on their
early material: Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life,” stretched out by
Kaukonen; Donovan’s “Fat Angel,” a one-chord snooze that probably only stayed
in the book because Mr. Leitch namechecked the band in the lyrics. The band
only performed Pillow‘s “DCBA-25” once,
which is odd since this deep cut offered a perfect blend of the band’s folk
harmonies and rock arrangement, so it’s especially disappointing that p.a.
feedback puts a damper on the track. But Spence’s rare “JPP McStep B. Blues”
and several aggressive versions of “She Has Funny Cars” balance out the pluses
and minuses.

 

Return to the Matrix finds
the band in February of 1968 at the height of their powers. They had just
released After Bathing At Baxter’s two months prior, and Pillow‘s
not-as-successful follow-up makes up a good deal of these two sets. Despite
that studio album’s shakiness, the tunes sound great in person, especially the
10-minute, mind-blowing rendition of “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”
that closes the second disc. At the other end of the evening, “Somebody to
Love” kicks things off at a slower tempo without diminishing its punch. Even
Dryden sounds looser and kicks things up a notch. In the surprise department,
the band pulled out the solid “Blues from an Airplane,” a Balin/Spence tune
that began their first album, which Slick admits she didn’t know the words;
“Ice Cream Phoenix,” which later showed up on Crown of Creation gets started here as another 10-minute
instrumental. This set has been highly regarded by Airplane fanatics, according
to the liner notes, and the brute force they reveal explains why.

 

It goes
without saying that the legacy of this band was eventually pissed away by the
self-importance of some members of the band, not to mention dog poop like Starship’s
“We Built This City,” which is still connected to the band’s DNA despite a lame
name change. But any and all of these discs indicate that there was a time when
these six musicians were spearheading that revolution they would very soon sing
about in “Volunteers.”

 

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