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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Jefferson Starship & The Contemporary Youth Orchestra: 5 June 2011 – Cleveland

Jefferson Starship

It’s a beautiful night in the Flats in downtown Cleveland, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River. With views of the river and downtown skyline and cool breezes wafting by, the Nautica Pavilion easily remains one of the best mid-size venues in the Midwest. It’s a great setting for the unique show that is to take place, a merger between the classic rock sound of San Francisco’s Jefferson Starship and the local Contemporary Youth Orchestra from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Capital of the World.

Jefferson Starship is still battling the public misconception that the band is that of the ’80s era pop rock that threatened to sully a classic rock legend. But Grace Slick has retired and Mickey Thomas has moved on. Jefferson Airplane founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Kantner is back in the saddle, teaming with rock goddess Cathy Richardson and ’60s/’70s cohort David Freiberg to take the band back to its roots in the timeless San Francisco Sound that Kantner helped invent.

The past three years have seen the band riding a powerful wave of energy, starting with the Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty LP in 2008. Jefferson Starship has been touring far and wide ever since –– from lengthy acoustic shows to the Heroes of Woodstock tour to the Roswell UFO Festival in 2009, to celebrating Kantner’s 70th Earth birthday with some special intimate shows this past March. Kantner and crew have made a concerted effort to keep this influential music alive during this tumultuous and critical era for humanity, when it’s needed more than ever.

Now the band is tapping into a new generation by teaming up with the kids in the Contemporary Youth Orchestra for a global webcast on HDNet. CYO Music director Liza Grossman and her 115 member orchestra of high school kids from all over Cleveland have been rehearsing since March for the show. The CYO has previously played with Ray Manzarek of The Doors, Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jon Anderson of Yes, Pat Benatar and her husband Neil Giraldo, and Styx among others. So the template for adding epic orchestration to a rock ‘n’ roll foundation has been in place. Some rockers might think it an odd combo, but once the show begins it becomes immediately apparent that something special is taking place.

Jefferson Starship is operating as a paired down unit here with Kantner, Freiberg and Richardson being joined only by their keyboardist Chris Smith. But with a 115-member orchestra and chorus surrounding them, taking out the rhythm section works to highlight the majestic grandeur that the orchestra brings to these classic tunes.

The show opens with Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 breakthrough “Somebody to Love”, and the classic hit sets a vibrant tone. Richardson’s powerful voice soars, and the orchestral arrangement gives the song a cinematic flavor that will linger throughout the show. Richardson gets in a playful “Hello Cleveland!” line in between songs, noting how she’d always wanted to say that (a nod to the mock rockumentary classic This is Spinal Tap). The band continues the trip through time with “Get Together”, another majestic hit from the mid-’60s. The band’s three-part harmonies always soar on this song and even more so with the orchestral accompaniment.

But they aren’t just knocking out a greatest hits show here. The program reveals a 20-song lineup that covers Airplane songs from throughout the ’60s, as well as some underrated Jefferson Starship rockers from the ’70s and a few tunes from Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. The band also pays tribute to former members, such as Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, with “Good Shepherd”. The traditional tune was re-arranged by Kaukonen in majestic and bluesy style for the 1969 Volunteers LP and it soars here.

“Lather” is another early highlight, with Richardson starring again as she fills Grace Slick’s shoes like no one else can. Former Quicksilver Messenger Service member Freiberg takes a star turn with lead vocals on that band’s “Pride of Man”, while the band later pays tribute to Jefferson Airplane/Starship singer Marty Balin with a high energy rendition of his “Count on Me” and a superb take on “Miracles”. This is one of the tracks that really benefits from the extra chorus on hand, with the extra harmonies taking the song’s mystic vibe to a higher level. The uber-classic “White Rabbit” ends the first set with a big crescendo. Richardson’s dynamic vocals rock the space-time continuum, and the strings make the psychedelic classic feel like an even more epic trip then ever.

There’s only a very short break before the band is back, just enough time to grab a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold Lager and get back to your seat. The Jefferson Starship’s ’70s catalogue gets a showcase in the 2nd set with great renditions of “Fast Buck Freddie”, “Jane” and “Ride the Tiger”. Freiberg really rocks it on “Jane”, while Kantner’s 12-string guitar blends beautifully with the orchestral strings for a magnificently majestic take on “Tiger”. Richardson dazzles on “Imagine/Redemption”, the clever mash-up of John Lennon and Bob Marley that has been a well-deserved staple of the band’s repertoire since it appeared on Tree.

The show just keeps getting better and better, with each song building on the last to demonstrate what a diverse and stellar repertoire Kantner and his compadres have built up over the decades. The group’s re-arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” is another standout track from Tree and it sparkles here. The song is a showcase for how the voices of Kantner and Richardson were destined for each other, with their majestic harmonies soaring in the night. Their voices blend in such a beautiful way here as to outshine the original version of the song, much as Jimi Hendrix was able to do with Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. Another magic moment to further rekindle the late ’60s fire follows with the Airplane’s “Crown of Creation”, with the kids chorus rocking out and clearly having a great time.

One of the evening’s most pleasant surprises occurs a second time when Kantner requests a repeat performance of the first set’s “Sketches of China”, a rarity from 1973’s Baron Von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun. The studio track had some strings on it, so the song really gels here with the full orchestral arrangement and extra orchestra solos that were missing from the evening’s first performance of the song. This sets the stage for a climactic set-closing rendition of “Wooden Ships” that lights up the night. It’s always been an epic tune and even more so here with the orchestral accompaniment. The post-nuclear apocalyptic imagery takes on a particularly relevant light now in lieu of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan earlier this year, and it’s a brilliant way to end the show.

There’s only one way to top it for the encore and so it is that the band returns for “Volunteers”, the call-to-revolution title track from the Airplane’s ultra-classic 1969 album. The song remains as relevant as ever with an America in turmoil and an Earth verging towards the brink in 2011, so it’s a most inspiring moment to see an orchestra of high school kids rocking it out in an extended jam. As Kantner, Richardson and Freiberg belt out the rousing harmonies – “Got a revolution, got to revolution, we are volunteers of America” – it feels like America and Earth still have a chance to turn things around. Thank you rock ‘n’ roll!

RATING 9 / 10