It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon up near the very top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, where the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater sits high above the Bay Area with a stunning view of San Francisco off in the distance. The 4,000-capacity stone amphitheater is rarely used for concerts anymore, mostly serving just for summertime plays such as the performance of Hair that will take place later today. But there’s a historically appropriate opening act up first as Jefferson Starship readies for liftoff with an early set here at the 2017 Magic Mountain Play Music Festival.
The 50th Anniversary edition of the Monterey Pop Festival scheduled for the following weekend down in Monterey is the commemorative event from 1967’s “Summer of Love” that’s getting all the hype and rightfully so. But today is another commemorative classic rock occasion as attendees learn, with this date marking the 50th anniversary of the Mount Tamalpais Fantasy Fair & Magic Mountain Music Festival. Featuring a lineup with Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Byrds, and Country Joe and the Fish, it was America’s first outdoor rock festival (beating Monterey to the punch by one week.)
Organizers here deserve kudos for bringing in Jefferson Starship to mark the occasion, giving Bay Area music fans a rare chance to see some live music in the rare air atop Mt. Tam. Jefferson Starship no longer features an original Airplane member though since co-founder and rock legend Paul Kantner’s untimely departure from the Earth in January of 2016. The band’s future seemed to hang in doubt in the early part of last year until they decided to carry on and “Carry the Fire” as the 2017 tour is dubbed. The band had been on a resurgence since 2008 when singers David Freiberg and Cathy Richardson joined the fold to generate majestic three-part harmonies with Kantner, launching a new era for the band with the criminally underrated Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty album.
Freiberg was one of Kantner’s longtime cohorts, having co-founded Quicksilver Messenger Service in the ‘60s before joining Jefferson Airplane at Kantner’s behest in 1972 and then the first incarnation of Jefferson Starship in 1974 (and remaining until 1984). Richardson, on the other hand, is a Gen-Xer who has filled Grace Slick’s formidable shoes like no other, so much so that the retired Slick even invited Richardson to sing in her place with original Airplane members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen when Jefferson Airplane received their Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Grammy Merit Awards Concert. Slick also gave this band her blessing to continue using the Jefferson Starship name after Kanter’s passing, because Richardson is that good and since the band is keeping Kantner’s music alive like no other.
Some fans may have had their doubts, but Jefferson Starship put those doubts to rest emphatically with a sensational headlining performance a year ago this weekend at the 2016 Haight Ashbury Street Fair that was billed as a “Paul Kantner Celebration of Life”. Delivering a set heavy on the Airplane’s seminal psychedelic rock classics along with some underrated gems from Kantner’s 1970 Blows Against the Empire concept album that first launched the Jefferson Starship concept (and became the first rock album to be nominated for science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Award), the band proved that this music still wants to be heard and that they’re the ones to deliver the goods. Guitarist Jude Gold was on fire that sunny afternoon on Haight Street as he, drummer Donnie Baldwin, keyboardist/synth bassist Chris Smith, Freiberg and Richardson delivered a triumphant performance that should have put to rest any doubts about the band’s worthiness.
2017 finds the band dealing with imperial entanglements, however, as original Jefferson Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico has decided to sue the band over the name claiming that they’re tarnishing the Jefferson Starship legacy by continuing to perform without Kantner. Chaquico’s legal challenge is downright shameful, considering that these musicians are the ones who are keeping the legacy of Kantner’s music alive by continuing to perform it. They also deliver the music with a passion that hasn’t been seen in decades thanks to Richardson’s rock goddess vocals. They further have the blessing of Grace Slick, while Chaquico has been out of the rock spotlight for years, having moved into a jazz career and rarely doing anything musically to preserve Kantner’s considerable legacy. Chaquico might have a piece of paper from a former legal battle giving him technical authority, but the idea that his opinion in the matter should count for more than Grace Slick’s is beyond ludicrous.
Jefferson Starship carries on here hitting the stage with gusto and delivering an early highlight with 1968’s “Crown of Creation” that gets the audience going. Most of the older-leaning audience is seated early on, but the rock ‘n’ roll crowd soon emerges as the dancers descend to sort of a pit area across from the stage to get a groove on. “Find Your Way Back” rocks out with a vibrant sound, while “Count on Me” generates some audience sing-a-long participation. A true peak moment occurs with “Today”, as the band turns the clock back to 1967 with the psychedelic majesty of the Surrealistic Pillow deep cut. Freiberg and Richardson harmonize in transcendent fashion here in a moment that sparkles in the Mt. Tam sun with the mountain breeze blowing, while Jude Gold adds some extra lead guitar shimmer that takes the song into a higher dimension.
The band executes a seamless transition into “Miracles”, which makes for a strong sonic compliment with “Today” as it also conjures a dreamy vibe. Richardson stirs the audience into a bit of a frenzy with her powerful vocals on “White Rabbit”, as the song’s seminal psychedelic power rings across the mountain. “We Built This City” doesn’t have quite the same force, and Freiberg even jokes about it being “the worst song ever”. The song somehow feels appropriate here though with a view of San Francisco off in the distance (if you sit high enough.) The band delivers another hit with “Jane” as Richardson contributes some mean cowbell while Freiberg belts out the rocker that he wrote. The crowd wants more Airplane though and will soon get it.
The set concludes with an appropriate flashback to the Summer of Love as the band rocks out on“Somebody to Love”. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it; the song always resonates with the sonic power of the ‘60s and Richardson sings it better than anyone besides Grace Slick in her prime. An almost requisite encore of “Volunteers” caps off the hour-long set (shorter than usual due to being in an opening slot), as the band delivers a rock classic that truly needs to be heard in 2017 as America seeks revolutionary volunteers to resist the economic tyranny of Donald Trump’s foul domain of greed and avarice.
Richardson is at her best here on “Volunteers” as she sings her cry for rock ‘n’ roll revolution with Freiberg filling the old Marty Balin call to “fight back!” Baldwin rocks a fierce beat as Gold rips melty hot licks to power the song higher while most of the crowd has now risen to rock for resistance, with many singing along on the call to arms chorus from 1969 — “Got a revolution, got to revolution!” This is how you keep Paul Kantner’s musical legacy alive, by continuing to deliver the musical call for revolution against the forces of old and evil.