[26 January 2010]
If you want to know what was going on with Jefferson Airplane when they took the stage for their final concert in 1972, consider the cover art that was used for this live document. Seven toasters, unplugged, flying in formation despite displaying clocks with different times. Or, if you will, seven burnt-out musicians doing their best to keep up appearances despite having completely separate agendas. This band had once—along with the Grateful Dead—spearheaded the psychedelic rock movement and the San Francisco music scene with dynamic live performances and a catalogue of material that was both populist and intricate. Now there were basically three factions under one roof vying for control.
Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen had already splintered off to form Hot Tuna, where they were freer to pursue their preference for long jams and bluesy riffing. Paul Kantner and Grace Slick had also released their own sideline projects, although their output favored trippier, spacey fare. The third faction, probably playing peacemaker, involved the newer members of the band—drummer John Barbata, vocalist David Freiberg, and 55-year-old fiddler Papa John Creach. Thankfully Kantner was in the midst of a prolific writing binge, for the only thing keeping the Airplane flying at this point was the strength of his songs and Kaukonen’s mercurial lead guitar. The original version of the album contained seven tracks recorded at shows in San Francisco and Chicago; this reissued and expanded version adds five more.
Despite drugs and apathy, the Airplane could still muster a little magic if the spirit was willing. Barbata proved to be an excellent foil for the Jorma/Jack moments, effectively creating a solid power trio that the rest of the band could play off. This is probably best exemplified on the eleven-and-a-half minute “Feels So Good”, the most spirited and proficient playing on the album. Kaukonen, in particular, is on fire—his tone and sustain are excellent, and he has ample opportunity to take off on his own or dance around Creach’s staccato riffing. Kantner all but disappears on the Jorma songs, supplying the rhythm along with Casady’s thundering bass.
But sadly, the elephant in the room here is Grace Slick. Once a dynamic and forceful singer who controlled her powerful pipes with finesse and skill, her performances here range from sloppy to atonal caterwauling. When safely hidden within the efforts of Kantner and Freiberg, the group harmony is tolerable enough, but she either couldn’t or didn’t want to align with Freiberg the way she could with departed co-leader Marty Balin. In her solo spots, or when going off on tangents, she’s often off-key, off-rhythm, and occasionally causes Kantner to stumble on rhythm guitar. Since the recordings span a few shows, it can’t be written off to one bad night. Thankfully this dark period would soon subside for her impending successful run with Starship.
Besides “Feel So Good”, there are few other highlights. Kantner’s “Have You Seen the Saucers” and “Twilight Double Leader”, both strong and cohesive, were the original album’s opening and closing songs. Of the added tracks, only two have a spark. “Come Back Baby”, a grooving blues dirge, benefits from Jorma’s great guitar and vocals and violin pyrotechnics from Creach. “Diana/Volunteers” also shows spirit, the sedate intro showcasing Kantner’s best moment on the album before the band kicks in to the familiar hook of one of their signature songs. Ironically they sound more like the Grateful Dead than themselves. Perhaps they opted to slide into a jam because any fiery political energy that this song once represented had long since dissipated. But the Slick-centric “Lawman” and “Long John Silver” are dull and boring, and “Wooden Ships” is a flat-out disaster.
Jeff Tamarkin’s liner notes quote various members agreeing that this was far from their finest moment and not representative of their usually powerful stage show. With this curio document, fans might be enticed to replace a prior version (or their vinyl), but those seeking artistic revelation are cautioned that this a textbook hit-and-miss proposition.