The Sci-fi Set
As the lights dimmed for the second set and NASA footage of various rocket missions played on the screen, a sound clip from The Empire Strikes Back came on with Jedi Master Yoda instructing student Luke Skywalker on the ways of the Force as Luke struggles to try and get his X-Wing out of the bog on Dagobah.
“You must unlearn what you have learned… Do or do not. There is no try… Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes,” said Yoda.
After Yoda uses the Force to lift the ship out of the bog, Richardson and Gould opened with a sparkling duet on “Sunrise” from Blows Against the Empire, which led into an epic performance of “Have You Seen the Saucers”, Kantner’s powerful tune that sums up the UFO phenomenon from the open-minded perspective:
“Have you seen the saucers? / Do you know the people out there / Who aren’t happy with the way that we care / For the Earth, the Mother / Have you seen the saucers / Tranquility Base / There goes the neighborhood / American garbage / Dumped in space and no room left for the brotherhood
Have you seen the saucers? / See our lights in your western skies, California? The rainbow skies / The government tells you another missile is flying / Have you any idea why they’re lying to you? To your faces / Did they tell you?
Have you seen the saucers? Star children on the back road to salvation / Children of the forest, child of the Woodstock Nation / Have a care for the needs of your planet / Catch the dawn that once was there / First-born atomic generation / Open the door, don’t you know that’s what it’s for? Come and join us on the other side of the sun.”
The performance was simply mesmerizing, with the band riding the momentum into the gorgeous “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” from Blows. With Kantner’s 12-string guitar, keyboardist Chris Smith’s piano, and Sless’ pedal steel, the band conjured the majestic vibe of looking out at the stars from the deck of a starship. The Blows theme continued as the band moved into “Hijack”, wherein the rebels steal the starship. It was another epic performance, again made all the more so by the entrancing harmonies of galactic queens Richardson and Gould.
The band then dipped back into Tree of Liberty as Kantner introduced “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as being sort of a space song since it’s about instructions to 19th-century slaves on how to navigate the Underground Railroad to freedom. It was yet another shining moment for Richardson, as she channeled the urgency of such a precarious journey, as well as throwing down a bluesy harmonica solo.
Kantner and the ladies then exited the stage as Constanten returned to lead the rest of the band into the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic classic, “Dark Star”. It’s performed instrumentally but is no mere tease—Sless moves from pedal steel to regular guitar as he and Aguilar launch into a full-on 1969-style rendition with deep exploration, augmented by Constanten and Smith on keys, with Sears weaving the deft bassline to keep the sonic journey moving. The huge “Dark Star” is most apropos since Jerry Garcia was one of many Bay Area musical luminaries to contribute on the recording of Blows.
The deep jam eventually segued into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” with Freiberg on lead vocal for the tale of astronaut Major Tom. There was a rough patch where Freiberg and Aguilar didn’t seem to be quite on the same page, but the tune was nonetheless another triumph for the set’s continuing thematic journey. A melodic jam led into “Hyperdrive” from 1974’s Dragonfly, with groovy vibes flowing as Gould and Richardson did a sexy little dance with each other before Gould took the vocal, with Richardson harmonizing on the chorus.
Another spacey jam seemed to revisit the “Dark Star”, as well as touching on Beth Orton’s “Galaxy of Emptiness” before finding its way into “Your Mind Has Left Your Body”, from 1973’s underrated Kantner/Slick/Freiberg album Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, with roadie Michael Eisenstein joining the band on guitar. Kantner’s spacey vocals oozed psychedelia, with Gould and Richardson joining him for the “Riders of the rainbow, let it grow” chorus. The psychedelia continued to grow when the band segued into the ultra-classic “Brain Damage” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Gould enchanted the audience on the vocal about seeing your friends on the moon’s dark side, with Richardson contributing the track’s mocking laughter and more harmonies.
The band brought the space trip resoundingly back to Earth with “Somebody to Love”, the Airplane’s 1967 hit that put the San Francisco Sound on the global map. Richardson and Gould traded verses in a magnificent performance, with a hard rocking arrangement that concluded the set in purely triumphant fashion.
Richardson seemed absent when the band returned for the encore of “White Rabbit”, only to crawl out from underneath the stage and slink her way up the stairs to the stage for a mesmerizing rendition of another Summer of Love classic. A slew of friends then joined the entire band for a rousing grand finale of “Volunteers”, the call for revolution title track from the Airplane’s 1969 album that would be the last with the classic lineup intact. Fans slowly exited the auditorium in a pleasant daze from the monumental three-hour performance. There is probably no other band in the world that could so skillfully blend rock’s retro-folk roots with its space jamming power.
Good vibes continued to flow at the aftershow party at Pepper’s Bar & Grill, where Los Angeles trio UFOetry entertained on the patio with tunes about UFOs, the Mayan calendar’s intriguing 2012 conclusion, and other metaphysical topics. Richardson, Gould, Sless, and Sears held court inside, graciously autographing posters and posing for photos with fans. The band filmed the entire show for a purported “Spockumentary” and fans can only hope that a DVD of this historic show sees the light of day ASAP.
// Notes from the Road
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