[22 October 2009]
Part of The Woodstock Experience collection of discs, the Jefferson Airplane deluxe installment celebrates not only the 40th anniversary of the landmark music festival, but the release of the band’s controversial 1969 release, Volunteers. Both the album and Jefferson Airplane’s live set from Woodstock are included on the two-disc set. Neatly packaged with nary a speckle of plastic but the double-discs themselves, the compilation arrives in oh-so eco-friendly cardboard packaging with liner notes, inserts, and a double-sided collector’s poster for the uber-fan.
In the interest of full disclosure, I listened to both discs of this album three times: Twice, stone cold sober; the third time, after downing a couple margaritas to see if there was something I was missing. (Yes, I know it probably lacks the Woodstock-era authenticity of smoking a tightly rolled spliff and capping it off with a tab or two of acid, but my day job does random drug testing.)
In either case, sauced or sober, I’ve come to the conclusion that Jefferson Airplane elicits mixed feelings, one being, they’re kind of overrated. On one hand, the band’s layered vocals and harmonies are something to marvel at, as is the guitar work of Jorma Kaukonen (who contributed the maudlin yet beautiful “Turn My Life Down” to the album and performed a noteworthy duet with himself on “Hey Frederick”). On the other hand, Volunteers and the band itself exhibits some signs of wear. The album itself feels rather dated and many songs don’t quite transcend the way some of their contemporaries’ music does four decades later. While Jefferson Airplane’s musicianship is undeniable and the powerful vocal chops proffered by both Marty Balin and Grace Slick pack a wallop, the meandering musical pastiches and way, way, way-out-in-left-field lyrics definitely make Volunteers feel more like a relic than something still breathing.
In terms of being a snapshot in time of the band, Volunteers is a good one. It captures a time before vocalist Balin bailed out of the Airplane, followed by drummer Spencer Dryden. Both alumni are in fine form on the album, with Dryden even penning the wry “A Song For All Seasons”, telling the tale of a fictional rock band and the individual debaucheries of its members. Dryden’s Western saloon piano-flavored swan song exemplifies all that’s right and wrong with Jefferson Airplane at times. The chorus of voices singing along makes the sound seem muffled; as a result, some of the glib lyrics get lost in the mix due to too many unwashed hands in the commune basin.
The album takes a rather neo-Thoreau sort of stance, extolling the virtues of nature on many tracks. “The Farm”—featuring a guest appearance by Jerry Garcia on steel guitar—can be a bit much, particularly with the braying animals at the song’s coda, although “Eskimo Blue Day” stands as a musical triumph of nature over technology and contains perhaps the earliest mention of global warming in its lyrics. Although it feels slightly dated in its subject matter, “We Can Be Together” remains the ultimate hippie anthem, a verbal be-in, if you will. Again, these all point to the mixed blessings that Jefferson Airplane has to offer.
Adding to the musical portrait of the band, their live performance at Woodstock further reinforces the conflicting feelings evoked by the studio album. The band starts off slow, not reaching their full potential until the midway point of their set. Early on, the live version of “Somebody to Love” lacks the swaggering, almost masculine bravado that Grace Slick owns on the recorded version. The Airplane attempts to kick into warp speed on this one, rushing through the song to get to a long, repetitive Dryden drum solo that isn’t even so much a jam session as it is mindless percussive masturbation.
The further into their live set they delve, the better the band sounds. Marty Balin sounds almost Joe Cocker-esque on the live rendition of Vietnam conflict-focused “Volunteers”. Similarly, the more weathered and raspy-with-wear Grace Slick’s contralto becomes, the more emotive punch she packs, showcasing her impact on dozens of female lead singers to follow. Her vocal duelings with Balin on the previously unreleased live version of “The House at Pooneil Corners” cements her reputation as the Ethel Merman of acid rock.
A 20-minute live version of the Crosby, Stills, and Kantner-penned “Wooden Ships” makes no bones about gobbling fabulous, life-sustaining “purple berries” along with its call for an end to war with a melding of sci-fi and back-to-nature overtones. Everything’s groovy for about the first eight minutes before the song trails off into an additional 12 minutes of gratuitous sounding freeform. Ditto for “The Ballad of You, Me, and Pooneil”, which crawls towards its soulful 15 minute climax—albeit a slightly more rewarding one than the laborious live treatment of “Wooden Ships”.
It’s fitting to see this dual disc set combine both Volunteers and the band’s live performance at Woodstock. Upon final examination, to a degree, Jefferson Airplane is a lot like Woodstock itself. Although both are rightfully iconic entities, there’s still a little too much hype held over from the days of hippie idealism surrounding their respective legends. As with Woodstock, for every performance by a Joplin or Hendrix, let’s not forget that there were at least two or three Country Joe McDonalds and Sha-Na-Nas. In the case of Jefferson Airplane, for every moment of glory, there are a couple overwrought, experimental failures. Nonetheless, the deluxe edition of The Woodstock Experience is an accurate portrait of a band and an era.