[19 July 2010]
There are few cultural events that still resonate through history four decades later. The Woodstock Music Festival from 1969 is certainly one of them. Drawing hundreds of thousands of music fans to Bethel, New York, the festival served notice that the counterculture was becoming part of the mainstream. Many music trends have come and gone since then, but the classic rock of the late ‘60s continues to endure. So it is that music fans gather at the Whitewater Amphitheater as the continuing Heroes of Woodstock tour touches down in South Texas.
It’s a gem of a venue, right on a river and surrounded by trees while able to draw from both Austin and San Antonio. Big Brother and the Holding Company are the first band out, featuring the tunes of Janis Joplin (which are most fitting here since Joplin hailed from Port Arthur, Texas before heading to Austin and then San Francisco). The band has had a variety of members over the years and a variety of singers filling in for Janis. But one mainstay has been original bassist Peter Albin, who always brings a cheerful vibe and a strong low end. Classic tunes like “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart” never fail to resonate with their melodic hooks and they sound great tonight. Soon thereafter, the current version of Canned Heat hits the stage and keeps the sounds of the ‘60s flowing. “Going Up the Country” and “On the Road Again” both feature deep bluesy jams with extended crowd-pleasing explorations.
Country Joe McDonald serves as MC for the show, knocking out some of his classic acoustic songs in between acts so there’s no lull during set breaks. Shortly before Jefferson Starship take the stage, McDonald introduces former Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten for a brief solo appearance. Constanten looks like a wise old wizard and conjures a mystical sound during an instrumental version of the Dead’s “Mountains of the Moon”, as a truly majestic full moon rises off in the distance. He then starts banging out the chords to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” but throws a great curveball by singing the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” for a unique “Werewolves of Watchtower” performance. His vocals even sound like ‘60s-era Dylan and it’s a shame that Dylan himself can no longer do the same. It’s a masterful mash-up to set the stage for the headliners.
Jefferson Starship are definitely the main attraction here, advertised as featuring the songs of Jefferson Airplane. The band has been on a resurgence since 2008, which saw the addition of singer Cathy Richardson for the band’s great Tree of Liberty album and subsequent touring that has re-focused the group back on the classic ‘60s material. The Airplane was one of the most important and relevant voices of that era’s groundbreaking socio-cultural musical revolution, advocating for a newly liberated and enlightened society. America is still chasing that dream so it’s great to see legendary guitarist Paul Kantner still bringing these songs to the public. The only member left from the Airplane, Kantner has tried several different singers over the years to fill in for the retired Grace Slick. But Richardson’s powerful voice and charisma have been the perfect fit, giving Jefferson Starship a shot at one last career peak here in this critical era for humanity.
The band opens with the resounding title track from 1969’s Volunteers, widely hailed as the band’s best album. It’s a song that defines the concept of socially conscious rock ‘n’ roll and it sounds as great as ever. Kantner takes the Marty Balin vocal, while Richardson and David Freiberg provide the harmonies of revolution. Drummer Donnie Baldwin and guitarist Slick Aguilar are dialed in from the start. There’s no bassist and regular keyboardist Chris Smith is absent, but his substitute holds down the Ray Manzarek-style low end without missing a beat.
Another ‘60s feel-good moment occurs with “Get Together”, the classic anthem of peace and harmony that the Airplane covered on their debut album in 1966. With three-part harmonies from Kantner, Richardson and Freiberg, the song soars. The band has been playing a wide variety of material from throughout Kantner’s storied career over the past couple years. But tonight they are solely focused on the Woodstock era classics. “Plastic Fantastic Lover” is a song that seemed to have fallen by the wayside without Balin to sing it, but the rocking ode to the addictive nature of television is a treat here with Richardson singing the tune in fine style. The charismatic blonde rock goddess was only just born in 1969, making her seemingly destined for this role.
The highlight of the show might well be “Wooden Ships”, which was also arguably the highlight of Jefferson Airplane’s epic Woodstock set. That version of the classic tune written by Kantner with David Crosby and Stephen Stills clocked in at over 20 minutes, with one of the greatest jams of the festival. The tune about the ever-present perils of war resonates just as deeply today, especially with Richardson and Freiberg aiding Kantner with their majestic harmonies. It’s here that the bass of Jack Casady is missed a bit, but guitarist Aguilar steps up to rip molten blues licks that do indeed recall Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. The song builds and builds, with Richardson’s soaring voice seeming to reach the stars, and with a big jam where Aguilar absolutely shreds.
Kaukonen is recalled again when Kantner makes a brief exit while Richardson sings “Uncle Sam’s Blues”, one of Kaukonen’s patented blues numbers. Richardson belts it out with deep blues power, scoring another highlight. The psychedelic vibes intensify toward the end of the show with seminal Summer of Love classics “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have been wowing festival crowds this year with their cover of “White Rabbit”, but Richardson sings it with a force like no one else besides Grace Slick. It sure would be great to see Jefferson Starship on some of those same summer festival bills, where they could easily win over a whole new generation of fans. Richardson dazzles again on “Somebody to Love”, as the whole band rocks out with one of the most enduring classics of the ‘60s. The tune never fails to rouse an audience and so it is again here.
The encore is an extra-special treat as the band throws down a monster jam with “The Other Side of This Life”, the Fred Neil classic that Kantner and the Airplane popularized as a staple of their sets in the ‘60s. It’s got a monster groove with timeless lyrics that shine with the three-part harmonies: “Well my whole world’s in an uproar, my whole world’s upside down / I don’t know where I’m going next, but I’m always bumming around / And that’s another side to this life I’ve been leading.” It’s just so great to see a rock legend like Kantner still going strong at this point, with someone like Richardson to re-invigorate the catalogue of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame band whose breakup came way too soon.