[13 January 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
In the expected history of psychedelic rock, few bands loom as large as San Francisco mainstays Jefferson Airplane. They were the first of the Haight-Ashbury bands to break across America, and then internationally. They were the biggest stars of the hippie music scene during the height of the hippie years, 1967-1969. And they reflected the communal, improvisational, and anti-professional ethic of their moment perhaps better than any of their contemporaries (aside from, probably, the Grateful Dead). In short, the Jefferson Airplane are assured their place in rock history. But, the dirty little secret about the band? They weren’t always that good.
They certainly had a few fantastic songs. There is no doubt that they boasted at least a couple of the most talented musicians in the Haight (in guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassidy). But, their vocals were inharmonious (at best) and their songwriting was deeply inconsistent. They made one very good record, and then a bunch of mediocre ones. But the real evidence is that their much vaunted live shows, though legendary, don’t stand up well to armchair listening. This final charge is in serious evidence here on the four San Francisco concerts released by Collector’s Choice.
The Airplane’s status as an improvisational live outfit was earned, it seems, primarily through their curious approach to the pop song format. They played stoned, yelping and hollering and pushing the boundaries of the songs. But, they didn’t stretch out into long, freeform jams—not really. Songs tended to be under ten minutes long, and many lasted as little as two or three. They were radio-length numbers, played in such a way as to never be radio friendly. So, this wasn’t the Dead—often the band with whom they shared bills back in the mid-to-late ‘60s—who would play five songs but make them last for an hour and a half. This was more like a typical format pop concert, but played by people who didn’t seem much to give a damn. They played their asses off, but they never appeared to be trying to make it sound perfect, so it never did. Whereas the Dead would head off into the stratosphere on their lengthy jams, often finding exciting new territory out there to explore, the Airplane’s sets generally remained locked in this short burst format. Which would have been OK if their best assets were their songwriting and singing. Unfortunately, these were their weakest assets by far.
The first of these releases features the late show at the Fillmore Auditorium from the final night of original singer Signe Anderson’s tenure with the band, October 15th, 1966. Though one would expect this to be more of a treat for collectors or completists (considering this show features a pre-Grace Slick lineup), it turns out to be a mostly excellent show. The sound quality is impressive (especially considering the age of the tapes), and the band is generally restrained and focused. Opening with a nine-minute jam, and rocking through a series of early Airplane numbers like “3/4 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”, “Go to Her”, and their cover of “Tobacco Road”, this is a worthy document, and (surprisingly, at least to me) boasts some of the strongest moments of the four shows here.
The second disc in this series comes from the very next night at the Fillmore, October 16th, 1966. Grace Slick’s debut performance is (unsurprisingly) assured and aggressive. She was a dynamo on the stage, a wailing sex symbol to rival Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. While her vocals rarely approached anything you could call “melodious”, there is no doubt that adding her to the band brought a new level of cool that helped to invite interest from music fans across the country. The third and fourth discs cover two more nights at the Fillmore Auditorium, some six weeks later, and feature a much more prominent Jorma on lead guitar, but also a lot more chaos. The show is subtitled “We Have Ignition” because the folks who picked it out for release here believe that it marks the moment when the Airplane really took off. Strangely, this is a less interesting performance than the pre-ignition ones on the first two discs. For, while the material is more diverse (and some of the new stuff is certainly better than anything they had been playing up to then, especially “White Rabbitt” and “Somebody to Love”), the lack of restraint exhibited by the band members (and the vocalists in particular) doesn’t serve the songs as well as it could.
The final two discs contain most of a show the Airplane played at the Matrix, lead singer Marty Balin’s club, from February 1st, 1968. A little over a year has passed, and the band has gone from Haight-Ashbury darlings to international pop stars. Here, they offer an intimate set at the apex of their commercial and cultural influence that seems to demonstrate, above all else, that they haven’t much improved or shifted their approach since late 1966. The show pales in comparison with the others in this series. Though it has moments of awesomeness (the jam on the new song “Ice Cream Phoenix” is compelling, and the energy on show closer “You and Me and Pooneil” is infectious), this show takes a long time to get going, and features a lot of yelling when singing would have been a better choice.
Still, there’s praise for anyone and everyone involved in the project of bringing this material out on CD. This was an exciting, innovative, and fascinating era for live rock’n’roll, and shows like these are important historical documents, if nothing else. Keep them coming.