The 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love is upon us, and the music gods have seen fit to bless the masses with some great newly released music from the era. This live album comes from two years later, but is jammed with the musical magic of the “San Francisco Sound” that the Airplane helped pioneer. Taken from the band’s November 28-29, 1969 shows at the Fillmore East, it’s probably better than anything they have in the can from 1967.
The band comes blazing out of the gate with “Volunteers”, the call-to-arms title track of their arguably best album, released earlier that month. Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen spews out some nasty licks and Jack Casady’s bass leads the way while vocalists Marty Balin and Grace Slick deliver an urgency born of turbulent times: “Look what’s happening out in the streets/ Got a revolution, got to revolution/ Hey I’m dancing down the streets/ Got a revolution, got to revolution.” Just a week later, Balin would be knocked unconscious by Hell’s Angels while onstage at the infamous Altamont Festival in California. But here, the Airplane was clearly soaring.
Kaukonen’s arrangement of the traditional “Good Shepherd” sizzles with psychedelic authenticity. While he may not have the quite the legendary status of contemporaries like Hendrix, Garcia and Santana, Kaukonen’s got the bluesy chops to hold his own and they come out loud and clear throughout the disc. The same can be said for the tight connection between Kaukonen and Casady (a partnership going 50 years strong now with Hot Tuna.)
Casual observers may be surprised to find that Grace Slick mostly sings harmonies with Balin, rather than being the primary lead vocalist, but those harmonies are part of what provides the Airplane with its magical musical formula. There’s something about mixed gender harmonies that summons a more mystical vibe. The songwriting and band chemistry has something to do with it as well—the Airplane was a band that didn’t depend on just one or two members to write the tunes. The creative diversity conjures a dynamic vibe, as does the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, as Kaukonen refers to in the disc’s liner notes. He writes that the band was “able to come together, each of us from a different artistic corner of the universe, and decorate some fine poetry with stunning ensemble playing.” True that.
Balin’s “Plastic Fantastic Lover” absolutely rocks. Balin gets his freak on while Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden really lay it down, and Kaukonen and rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner connect in a super tight way. Like the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Cream’s Jack Bruce, Casady wasn’t content to play the standard background type of bass line—he is often up front driving the music. The effect here is transcendent.
“Uncle Sam’s Blues”, another traditional arranged by Kaukonen and Casady, is a standard electrified blues that soars with the Airplane’s guidance. There’s no letup as the band locomotives into “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”, a tune somewhat reminiscent of the Byrds’ more familiar “Eight Miles High”. Slick joins Balin in a vocal harmony that floats atop a thick groove from the band. They’re peaking now, because next up is a nine-minute romp through “You Wear Your Dresses Too Short”, followed by a smoking take on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Come Back Baby”, where the rhythm section is a force to be reckoned with.
After sitting that one out, Slick gets back into the mix on “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”, as she and Kantner join Balin in a three-part harmony that conjures Golden Gate Park psychedelia at its most authentic. Kantner’s epic “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” follows, featuring more great harmonies and a huge bass solo from Casady. The band delivers the obligatory “White Rabbit” next, which clocks in at just 3:03 before giving way to “Crown of Creation” and a monster closing jam on “The Other Side of This Life” where Slick’s voice shines like a diamond.
The musical power displayed throughout the disc constantly leads one to wonder why the Airplane didn’t stay together through the decades like the Grateful Dead did—this is quite simply “the stuff”. Sweeping Up the Spotlight unquestionably belongs right up there with the Dead’s Live/Dead, the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, and Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies as the best live albums of the era.