Anticipation ran high amongst classic rock fanatics on this Thursday evening in the San Diego region as Jefferson Starship’s “40 Years in Space” tour touched down to deliver a dose of the original San Francisco sound. The tour commemorates Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and band ringleader Paul Kantner’s launch of this musical mothership back in 1974, after Jefferson Airplane had been grounded by interband tension and dissension.
Jefferson Starship had a series of smash hits in the ‘70s, but of course Airplane fans still crave the seminal tunes from the ‘60s that helped launch a rock ‘n’ roll revolution that altered American culture forever. Kantner solves the musical dilemma by mixing the Jefferson Starship hits and Jefferson Airplane deep cuts together for a crowd-pleasing repertoire. He still sports a rotation of Rickenbacker semi-hollow body guitars that resonate with classic rock magic, providing this musical spacecraft with timeless engines that never go out of style.
But what really makes Jefferson Starship soar is vocalist/rock goddess Cathy Richardson, manning the warp drive controls since joining the band in 2008. Filling the shoes of a rock legend like Grace Slick is a tall order, but Richardson’s powerful voice and deep mojo have helped Jefferson Starship chart a bold new course over the past six years. It’s been a blessing from the music gods, giving Kantner the wingwoman he needs to keep bringing the music to the people in this critical era for humanity.
Jefferson Airplane was one of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite bands, with the music providing “fuel” for his writing as well as key soundtrack moments in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was in that book in 1971 where Thompson reflected back on the San Francisco socio-cultural revolution of the ‘60s with a soul-searching nostalgia that still resonates for anyone who loves the music of the era: “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail”, waxed Thompson.
Jefferson Airplane played a key role in generating that energetic tidal wave, though Thompson was forced by the times to sum up a generational lament for how that cultural wave broke and rolled back. But there are many who like to believe that a new tide is rising and that the good people of humanity can and somehow will come together to rise above those forces of “Old and Evil”.
That tidal energy flowed through the Belly Up when the band performed the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” early on, a song recorded on Jefferson Airplane’s debut album in 1966. The harmonies between Kantner, Richardson and guitarist/vocalist David Freiberg soared with an optimistic power transcending the decades. When they sang “You hold the key to love and fear in your trembling hands,” it was easy to feel like the energy of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution can indeed still prevail. Tunes like “Miracles”, “Find Your Way Back” and “Count on Me” delivered some of the band’s ‘70s hits before they dipped back into the well for “Wooden Ships”.
The ‘60s energy soared again as the band sang the classic tale of pioneers on a quest for a new civilization free of the madness that plagues the modern world. Guitarist Jude Gold, drummer Donny Baldwin and keyboardist Chris Smith all combined to help create a magnificent psychedelic wall of sound here. The only thing missing was someone to fill the bass slot of the great Jack Casady. Why Kantner prefers touring without a bassist remains a mystery, although one could argue that such a format helps put a sonic focus on the majestic three-part harmonies that give Jefferson Starship much of its magic.
The band stayed in the era for the seminal “White Rabbit”, with Richardson pulling a stuffed rabbit out of a hat in charming fashion at the beginning of the psychedelic classic that never fails to mesmerize. Richardson starred again with her own “Beautiful Girl” from the great yet overlooked album she released with her band the Macrodots in 2008, and Freiberg took the audience on a trippy journey with “Codeine”. Gold also starred with a fabulous arrangement of “Embryonic Journey”, Jorma Kaukonen’s virtuoso guitar masterpiece from the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow.
Kanter kept it old school when he returned to team with Richardson on “Sunrise” from his 1970 concept album Blows Against the Empire, the only rock album ever nominated for sci-fi literature’s prestigious Hugo Award. It was a perfect intro to an epic “Have You Seen the Saucers”, another Kantner classic from the early ‘70s that brilliantly sums up the UFO phenomenon and cover-up. The vocal harmonies soared to interstellar levels here, while Gold boosted the jam higher with some fiery lead guitar as the audience was taken on a trip to the other side of the sun.
“The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” soared as well, a poignant yet rocking Airplane warning against a potential nuclear holocaust. With the Fukushima meltdown poisoning the planet and Uncle Sam still being courted for subsidies by the nuclear powers that be, “Pooneil” remains as relevant as ever in 2014. Kantner’s 12-string Rickenbacker sounded sensational, ringing with a shimmering brilliance across the space-time continuum. The band upped the ante by jamming into the “Come to the edge” sequence from “On the Threshold of Fire”, a majestic song from 2008’s Tree of Liberty that can stand alongside Kantner’s best work from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The set came to a rousing close with “Somebody to Love”, the enduring anthem from “the Summer of Love that launched the Airplane into the cultural stratosphere.
Kantner nodded to Freiberg to start the encore with the Quicksilver Messenger Service classic “Fresh Air”, before cranking up the call for revolution with the Airplane’s “Volunteers”. The title track from the band’s uber-classic 1969 LP serves as a timeless call to the revolutionary minded souls of America. The song resonates with a liberating power that feels like it could still help change the world, if only more bands would get on board with the song’s revolutionary message. But the dream lives on as long as the Jefferson Starship continues to fly.