Roswell UFO Festival: 3 July 2009 - Roswell, NM

Photo: Greg Schwartz

The biggest question on the minds of most attendees was not whether there is a cover-up, but when it will end.

Legend has it that on July 3, 1947, a mysterious object crashed on a ranch in the New Mexico desert, about 30 miles north of Roswell. The Roswell Army Air Field at first issued a press release claiming to have recovered a “flying disk,” with the Roswell Daily Record running a famous front page story reporting this the next day. But the RAAF then retracted the statement and said the object was merely a crashed weather balloon.

This effectively ended the story for most national observers, until 1978 when Jesse Marcel Sr. -- the intelligence officer at the RAAF in 1947 -- came out of the cosmic closet and said what the military had recovered was “not of this Earth.” The Roswell Incident has since become the holy grail of UFOlogy, with numerous books and television shows devoted to exploring the case.

There's not much happening in Roswell these days, so the town seized on this notoriety in the mid-'90s to create the Roswell UFO Festival, and why not? This is a desolate area that can use all the action it can get. It's basically 200 miles from anywhere -- Albuquerque, Las Cruces, El Paso, Lubbock, Amarillo... all a three-hour drive away. This explains why the U.S. military's most sensitive installations were located in Southeastern New Mexico in the 1940s -- the atomic research at Los Alamos where the first atomic bomb was developed, the testing of captured German V-2 rockets at White Sands near Alamogordo, and the Trinity Site, where that first atomic bomb was detonated.

The newly revised and expanded Witness to Roswell by Thomas J. Carey and Donald R. Schmitt -- who spoke during the festival at the International UFO Museum and Research Center -- colors in such details in compelling fashion. The book documents such an array of both civilian and military witness testimony so as to render denial of the Roswell cover-up irrational.

Roswell, we learn, was also home to Uncle Sam's 509th Bomb Group, the first and only atomic strike force in the world at the time. It therefore makes perfect sense that extraterrestrial visitors trying to size up humanity might take a keen interest in the area. Those events of 62 years ago remain a compelling enigma, drawing thousands of visitors every July.

Organizers pulled a coup this year by landing the resurgent Jefferson Starship for the festival's headlining performance. The band has been riding a new wave of energy since the addition of captivating vocalist Cathy Richardson last year, along with the subsequent Jefferson's Tree of Liberty album that pays homage to a variety of '60s classics that inspired Paul Kantner and company when they were forming Jefferson Airplane. Kantner is the only member left from the halcyon '60s era, but he's stepped up to steer Jefferson Starship back on course, away from the slick pop sound the band devolved into and back to the psychedelic rock roots that helped pioneer the legendary San Francisco Sound.

Word was leaked approaching the show that the first set would be an acoustic-oriented affair, while the second set would have a science fiction theme. Kantner's been known for such material at least since Jefferson Airplane's 1970 single “Have You Seen the Saucers”, as well as that year's Blows Against the Empire concept album that told the tale of a group of rebels that hijack a starship to take off and pursue a more utopian society than what Uncle Sam has to offer.

The show was also billed to include a variety of special guests, including one-time Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten, former Jefferson Starship vocalist Darby Gould, veteran psyche rock musician and early Starship member Pete Sears, folk legend Jack Traylor, and pedal-steel guitar maestro Barry Sless. Kantner and crew were clearly planning a special event.

The First Set

Tom Constanten opened the program with a solo performance of the folksy “Urban Spaceman”, followed by an instrumental version of the Grateful Dead's mystical “Mountains of the Moon”. Kantner and longtime cohort David Freiberg then came up through the crowd with acoustic guitars playing “This Land is Your Land”, turning it into a patriotic ode about taking the power back. Being a one-time military school attendee in his teens, it must have given Kantner an ironic pleasure to take the Pearson Auditorium stage at the New Mexico Military Institute as a conquering hero.

Actor Brian Thompson, best known as the alien bounty hunter from The X-Files, then introduced the band. But Kantner threw a curveball by sending Traylor out first to perform “Me and My Uncle” and “Billy the Kid”, the latter Traylor attributed to Kid's frequenting of the region. The full band then fired up with the Airplane's “Crown of Creation” to get the show flying. It was the first of many tunes to feature dazzling four-part harmonies from Richardson, Gould, Kantner, and David Freiberg.

“Let’s Get Together”, the classic '60s tune devoted to peace and unity -- covered by the Airplane on their first album -- was given even more local relevance when Freiberg said that songwriter Dino Valente had been stationed at Roswell when he was in the Air Force. The song soared behind the band's four-part harmonies for an early highpoint that flowed into Bob Dylan's “Chimes of Freedom”, with the group harmonies conjuring up a majestic quality Dylan's version never had.

The lead vocal baton was then passed all around as Freiberg sang the folksy “Cowboy on the Run”, Richardson sang her own “I Can't Forgive You”, Gould starred on “Genesis Hall”, and Traylor returned for a rousing “Earth Mother” and “Flowers of the Night”, a pair of Traylor gems recorded by Kantner and Grace Slick in the early '70s. “Earth Mother” shined as Richardson and Gould harmonized behind Traylor on insightful lyrics like “Once the earth was a garden / It gave us all we need / Then it grew so barren / All because of greed.”

“Here's one for all the police people in town,” said Kantner introducing “Lawman”, a Grace Slick classic featuring Gould on vocals. The band then closed the first set with an electrifying rendition of “Wooden Ships”, with the four-part harmonies soaring once again. The power of the forthcoming second set was alluded to as drummer Donny Baldwin and bassist Pete Sears pumped up the tune's foundation, Barry Sless added transcendent pedal steel and lead guitarist Slick Aguilar threw down a smoldering solo.

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