Return To The Matrix 02/01/68 by The Jefferson Airplane

October 24, 2010

Collector’s Choice Music has just issued four historic live albums by the Jefferson Airplane. The first was recorded at the Fillmore Auditorium October 15, 1966 and was singer Signe Anderson’s final concert with the group. The second was recorded a day later and featured Grace Slick’s debut with the group. Release number three is from a pair of shows recorded about a month later and finds Grace Slick settling in as a member of the band.

The fourth album in the series is Jefferson Airplane: Return To The Matrix 02/01/68, which features two discs and 103 minutes of unreleased live music by one of the premier bands of the psychedelic era.

Recorded about sixteen months after Grace’s debut, she has now settled in as a key component of Jefferson Airplane. When she was hired, it is doubtful if the band members realized that they were getting one of the great female voices in rock history in addition to a woman who would become symbolic of the era. By late 1968, though, she had become the visual focal point of the band.

The Jefferson Airplane was one of those bands who would take their short, concise studio tracks and stretch them out when playing live. The instrumental skills of Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jack Cassady were some of the best that rock had to offer. Their studio albums may have been commercially successful, but their live skills and reputation would ensure their induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Return To The Matrix finds the band at the height of their powers. They had been on the road and in the recording studio for three years. They could now draw material from three of their signature albums, Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing At Baxter’s, and Crown Of Creation.

Grace Slick also brought two songs with her from her first group, The Great Society. Both “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit would become hit singles and be ranked among The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine. Slick is in fine vocal form and “Somebody To Love,” which begins the concert, immediately ramps up the energy. Her “Two Heads” is also a nice performance as well.

Marty Balin’s vocals were always a nice counterpoint to Slick’s, whether as the lead, in support, or as a duet. Here he is best represented by “It’s No Secret,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” “Today,” and “Share A Little Joke.”

The old rock song “Kansas City” was a staple of their live act at the time although they would use it as a jumping off point for their guitar excursions. The last three tracks present the concert Airplane at its best as they cover about a half hour of time. “Ice Cream Phoenix,” Donovan’s “Fat Angel,” and the ten minute closer “Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil” stand among their best live work.

It is nice that the Jefferson Airplane vaults have been opened. Return To The Matrix is a stunning document of the era and one of the bands that defined American rock.

Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 and 11/27/66 – We Have Ignition

October 24, 2010

Collectors’ Choice Music has just released four historic and classic live albums by The Jefferson Airplane. The first two, chronologically, focus on Signe Anderson’s last concert with the band recorded 10/15/66 and Grace Slick’s debut 24 hours later. They present the future Rock And Roll Hall of Fame group at the crossroads of their career as they had just acquired one of rock’s supreme voices and enduring personalities.

The third album in the series was recorded a little over a month after Slick’s debut. Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66 – We Have Ignition is a two disc, 28-song set which covers two of their performances. There is repetition as eight of the songs are repeated but as this is a live album there are differences and it’s nice to hear the variations that appear in the material.

My only major complaint is the lack of liner notes. Both of the first two releases came with booklets that provided biographical information about the group. This one has nothing and it would have been nice to have had connector material from Slick’s first six weeks with the band but since there is nada the music will have to do.

Grace and the band have come a long way in a short time. Here we find her beginning to assert herself as a vocal presence and force within the band. The appearance of her composition ‘White Rabbit” signaled her emergence as a rare sixties female rock performer of note. Slick wrote the song while she was a member of The Great Society and brought it with her to The Airplane. It became one of the signature songs of the psychedelic era. The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame ultimately honored it as one of The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll. This early presentation shows a young Grace Slick on the way to stardom.

The sets are tighter than the first two albums in the series. While their improvisational styles are still very much present, they are more controlled as only two tracks exceed seven minutes. Still songs such as “Fat Angel,” “The Other Side Of Life,” “3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds,” and “High Flyin’ Bird” demonstrate the group’s developing improvisational prowess. When you combine those performances with such staples as “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” “She Has Funny Cars,” and “It’s No Secret” you have the foundation of a classic Jefferson Airplane concert.

This third album in the series chronicles the continued development of one of the great American rock bands. They are still an excellent listen 44 years later.

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Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 10/16/66 Early and Late Shows – Grace’s Debut

October 24, 2010

Signe Anderson performed her last concert with The Jefferson Airplane on October 16, 1966 at The Fillmore Auditorium. She had been a vocalist with the Airplane almost from its beginnings in 1965. Her public reason for leaving was a desire to spend more time with her family but her husband did not get along with the members of the group.

I don’t think she even made it home before Grace Slick took her place 24 hours later. She was the lead vocalist of The Great Society and was known to the band. While Anderson would disappear at times and be the least visible member of the group, Grace Slick would be a very different presence. I doubt the other group members realized at the time what they were in for but she would become a focal point of the band and bring one of the great female voices in rock history with her. When I think of psychedelic and rock music of the late sixties and early seventies, the image of Grace Slick is one that comes to mind.

Collector’s Choice has issued a four CD series of classic live performances by The Jefferson Airplane. Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 10/16/66 Early & Late Shows – Grace’s Debut is the second in the series. The cover picture of Grace and the full inside photo of her face present a young and innocent Slick. I was going to write virginal but given her future history and its perception, I felt it would not fit even at this early period in her career.

While this album may be Grace’s debut, it is really a group affair. She is just trying to fit in. She sings the Anderson harmony parts and while her voice is stronger it is not front and center as it would soon become.

Anderson’s farewell concert and Grace’s debut would both contain 13 songs but only five would be repeats. Not only did the band incorporate a new lead singer a day after the previous one departed but they changed and replaced more than half of their live act.

The Jefferson Airplane would become one of rock’s best improvisational bands and this CD shows them developing those skills. “Thing,” at over ten minutes, allows each musician to stretch out and show their skills. “They give the old rock ‘n’ roll classic “Kansas City” a seven minute workout. One the other hand the six minute “The Other Side Of Life” and the equally long “And I Like It” feature a more controlled improvisation.

Marty Balin was the vocal center of the band. His clear vocal and perfect tone was a vital part of their sound and at times seemed to run counterpoint to the music that was swirling around him.

While this may be a historic performance because of Grace Slick’s debut, it is also a document in the evolution of one of the important rock bands in American music history. Essential for any fan of the era.

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Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66 Late Show – Signe’s Farewell by The Jefferson Airplane

October 24, 2010

The Jefferson Airplane traces their lineage back to 1965 when vocalist Marty Balin met guitarist Paul Kantner. Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Skip Spence were quickly added although Spencer Dryden would replace Spence before their first album was completed. The final piece was Signe Toly Anderson who was selected as a second vocalist.

Signe’s tenure with The Airplane would be brief and it and she would be over shadowed by her future replacement Grace Slick who was one of the great vocalists of the sixties and seventies rock era. She would take part on only the group’s debut album. Her reason for leaving was a desire to spend more time with her family.

Collector’s Choice Music has now released a four CD series of live performances by The Jefferson Airplane. The first chronologically is her final performance with the band. On October 15, 1966 she would take part in their two set show at The Fillmore West. The second of those two sets has been resurrected as Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66 Late Show – Signe’s Farewell. This show has been circulated as a bootleg for years so it’s nice to finally have it as a cleaned up official release.

There is no doubt that this concert was planned to be her last. She says goodbye at the end but also the very next day the band performed with Grace Slick in her place. She would complete the six person line-up which would be inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996.

October of 1966 finds The Jefferson Airplane on the road to becoming one of the most influential rock bands of their era. While they had only released one studio LP at this point in their career; their concert skills as one of the premier experimental and improvisational bands of all time had begun to develop.

While it is advertised as Signe’s farewell concert, it is really a complete band effort and her participation is less important than the whole group experience. She only takes a true lead vocal on her signature song “Chauffeur Blues.”

The concert’s importance as a pivital point in the group’s history is ultimately less important than its presentation of the group live at this early stage in their career. A number of unusual songs comprise the 13 track set. An early version of “3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds” which would be released as a studio version on their classic Surrealistic Pillow makes an appearance. It and the old Donovan tune “Fat Angel,” at over seven minutes, are early examples of their developing improvisational skills. Other songs of note are “High Flying Bird,” “Come Up The Years,” and the nine mine opening “Jam.”

This is a release that should please all fans of The Jefferson Airplane and of the psychedelic rock era as well. Signe Anderson has continued to perform off and on and recently made some special appearances with the The Jefferson Starship – Next Generation.

She may not have been Grace Slick but she was an early figure in the American psychedelic music scene and it’s nice to have a live document of her last concert.

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Setlist: The Very Best Of The Jefferson Airplane Live by The Jefferson Airplane

July 11, 2010

Sony Music/Legacy is releasing a new series of CD’s featuring live recordings by some of the classic artists of the last half century. The first batch of eleven Setlist releases includes Alabama, Blue Oyster Cult, Johnny Cash, Cheap Trick, Judas Priest, Kansas, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Quiet Riot, REO Speedwagon, and the subject of my review today: Jefferson Airplane. Live tracks from prior releases have been gathered together with a few unreleased performances thrown in for good measure to create these new compilation albums. They do not have a concert feel as there is no flow from track to track. What they do accomplish is provide an excellent overview of each artist’s live work at different periods of their career.

Jefferson Airplane formed during 1965 and quickly became one of the leading rock groups in the world. Their unique brand of psychedelic rock would enable them to sell millions of albums, become an incendiary live band, and be elected to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The original group was comprised of vocalist Marty Balin, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist Paul Kantner, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Spencer Dryden. When vocalist Grace Slick replaced Signe Anderson after one album their classic line up was complete.

Setlist: The Very Best Of Jefferson Airplane Live assembles tracks from Bless Its Little Pointed Head, Jefferson Airplane Loves You, Sweeping Up The Spotlight: Jefferson Airplane Live At The Fillmore East, and Thirty Seconds Over Winterland. Two previously unreleased performances complete the twelve track, one hour plus CD.

The classics “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” both show the power of Glace Slick’s voice. The live atmosphere allows her to change things around a bit and provide some different nuances. Likewise “Comin’ Back To Me” showcases Marty Balin’s ability to carry a song for over seven minutes.

On the other hand “She Has Funny Cars,” “Have You Seen The Saucers,” and “Crown Of Creation” demonstrate how Balin and Slick could weave their voices together.

It is the longer tracks which best represent the Airplane’s live sound. “Feel So Good” (11:22), “Good Shepard” (7:19), and “Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil” (10:27) all give Kantner and Kaukonen room to improvise on their guitars and prove why they were recognized as one of the best duos of their generation.Setlist: The Very Best Of Jefferson Airplane Live may not break any new ground but does cover the old very well. If you have not been exposed to the live Jefferson Airplane, this is a good place to start.

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White Rabbit 45 by The Jefferson Airplane

May 31, 2010

When Grace Slick replaced Signe Anderson as the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane she brought along a couple of songs she had written for her previous group, The Great Society. “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit ” would be the only two top forty hits of their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Career.

Grace Slick was one of the great female vocalists in rock history and “White Rabbit” remains one of her signture performances. Released by the Airplane during 1967, it rose to the number eight position on The American singles charts.

It was one of the first drug songs to receive wide spread radio airplay. The Alice In Wonderland hallucinatory drug imagery made it a summer of love and sixties psychedelic classic. The music was similar in style to “Ravel’s Bolero” as it continued to build throughout the song and provided a solid foundation for Slick’s vocal.

“White Rabbit” is now regarded as one of rock’s most memorable and influential songs. Any study of sixties rock ‘n’ roll should include a visit to the “White rabbit.”

Somebody To Love 45 by The Jefferson Airplane

January 16, 2010

The Jefferson Airplane changed in 1966 when original singer Signe Anderson was replaced by former Great Society vocalist Grace Slick. She would combine with Marty Balin to provide the group with a vocal sound which would fuel one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

The Great Society had recorded two albums for the Columbia Label which would be released after Slick’s departure. What Slick did do however was bring two of the songs along with her. “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” would not only become singature songs of The Jefferson Airplane but of the psychedelic era.

“Somebody To Love” would become the bands first chart hit reaching number five on The American charts in May of 1967. It featured a driving rock sound with Slicks powerful vocal on top. It would enable the group to have a commercial break through and Slick to become a symbol of the era.

Today Grace Slick is one of the legendary rock ‘n’ roll figures and this song is where it all started.

Live At The Boston Esplanade (DVD) by Marty Balin

December 10, 2009

Marty Balin’s place in rock ‘n’ roll history is secure, having been a founding member, songwriter, and co-vocalist of the legendary Jefferson Airplane. Plus, anyone who could survive being the vocal partner of Grace Slick deserves his place in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Martyn Jerel Buchwald began his music career in the early sixties as part of the west coast folk revival. His tenure in The Jefferson Airplane (1965-1971) and The Jefferson Starship (1975-1978) solidified his rock ‘n’ roll credentials and immortality. He also participated in the Airplane’s 1989 reunion album and tour; and he continues to be a part-time member of Starship.

His solo career has now produced eight albums plus the hits “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady.”

2008 found him bringing his clear tenor voice to the Boston Esplanade as he performed a set of classic songs from different parts of his career. He is backed by vocalist Didi Stewart, drummer Donnie Baldwin, guitarist Mark Aguilar, keyboardist Gordon Gebert, and bass player David Trupia.

The set contains four Jefferson Airplane songs as “3/5th Of A Mile In 10 Seconds,” “Somebody To Love,” “White Rabbit,” and “Volunteers” all find new life in the 21st century. Balin’s voice is still powerful plus its tone is clear. It’s actually easy to see how he held his own with Grace Slick.

Contrasted with his songs in the Airplane, his Starship and solo material is more pop oriented. “Miracles,” “Count On Me,” and “Runaway” were all huge hits for him and the Jefferson Starship in 1975 and 1978. And they present his smooth side as the listener is lulled and caressed by his vocal skills.

There are eight bonus tracks, seven of which are from various tours from 2006 to 2008 plus one odd track from 1995. The best of this material is his own “Summer Of Love,” an excellent cover of Essra Mohawk’s “Shaping The Night,” and an interesting version of “Somebody To Love.”

The second part of the bonus material is a series of interviews which includes one fifty minutes in length recorded for Visual radio.

Live At The Boston Esplanade is a well conceived and assembled DVD that brings the career of Marty Balin into the present, proving that he can still rise to the occasion after all these years.

Baron Von Toolbooth and The Chrome Nun by Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg

May 25, 2009

A reader of one of my recent reviews left a comment mentioning Baron von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun. This sent me scurrying to my record room as I had not thought of, never mind listened too, this album for quite awhile which probably means decades.

I am amazed at how much music the members of the Jefferson Airplane produced in the early 1970s, both within the group and especially their various side projects. Paul Kantner, produced the classic album, Blows Against The Empire in 1970 and he and Grace followed that with Sunfighter in 1971. 1973 would find Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg uniting to record the music that would form this album.

Baron von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun, which were nicknames given to Paul Kantner and Grace Slick by David Crosby, may not be the grand science fiction epic of Blows Against The Empire but the music is strong and has a haunting and even beautiful quality to it while the lyrics are philosophical and even playful in nature.

The album features another musical all star cast. David Crosby, John Barbata, Papa John Creach, Mickey Hart, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia all provided stellar support.

Grace Slick shares equal billing with Paul Kantner. She wrote or co-wrote six of the ten tracks and her vocals are for the most part memorable. “Ballad Of The Chrome Nun” and “Across The Board” find Grace at her post Airplane best. The first is almost a perfect performance. Written with David Freiberg, the music is catchy, the vocal superb, and the lyrics sarcastic yet playful. The second is a powerful and sexy performance from a now mature performer. If I can’t have the Grace Slick of “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit,” this one will do fine. “Fat” is just a cut below the first two and contains some of the most beautiful and moving music that she would create.

At this point Paul Kantner was producing some of the best lyrics of his career. “White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmachine Blues)” finds him expressing his thoughts about life and the future yet the song retains elements of hope. Likewise “Walkin” written with Grace Slick is a song about looking back and ahead. “Flowers Of The Night” written by Jack Traylor returns the album to the spirit of revolution.

While Baron von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun would not be a huge commercial success, it does contain some of the best music of Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s career. It is definitely worth seeking out and I will not be returning it to the shelf any time soon.

Blows Against The Empire by The Jefferson Starship

May 24, 2009

A sealed vinyl copy of Blows Against The Empire appeared on my desk recently, which was perfect since I had just finished a ten part Jefferson Airplane album review series.

It is always nice to have classic albums remastered and released in their original vinyl form. Sony/BMG, through their Legacy Series, does an excellent job in selecting essential albums for vinyl reissue. Blows Against The Empire has a crystal clear sound and the packaging is faithful to the original.

1970 found Paul Kantner becoming somewhat tired of the tensions within Jefferson Airplane. In addition, the group members had begun to gravitate toward outside projects. He, with Grace Slick in support, began working on an album that would become Blows Against The Empire. The cream of west coast musicians and some friends would lend their talents to the project. Members of the Grateful Dead including Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, David Freiberg, Harvey Brooks plus members of the Airplane would all help to bring Kantner’s musical vision to fruition.

The album was a built around a concept that told one of the most creative stories in rock music history. Starships, revolution, an oppressive government, and utopian ideals play out against well crafted psychedelic music. Released just after the sixties ended, in many ways it brought the era of psychedelic music to a close. The album was nominated for science fiction literature’s prestigious Hugo Award; the only rock album to be so honored.

The musicianship is outstanding throughout the album’s ten tracks. Jerry Garcia provides some of the best lead guitar work of his career and his interaction with the piano playing of Grace Slick is not only surprising but provides some of the best rock fusions of those two instruments to have been recorded during that time period.

Songs such as “Let’s Go Together,” “A Child Is Coming,” and “Hijack” are melodic yet advance the story. “Starship,” which brings the album to a close, is a seven minute rock epic. Paul Kantner wrote this song with band mates Grace Slick and Marty Balin and it is superior to just about anything the Jefferson Airplane would produce in the early 1970s and shows what an important component Balin was to the group’s chemistry. In some ways I wish it could have been the final Jefferson Airplane album as it would have allowed the group to go out in style.

Blows Against The Empire remains a wonderful vehicle for Paul Kantner to have presented his political agenda and his views of a utopian lifestyle through the use of rock ‘n’ roll. It is an album that defines a bygone era yet, nearly forty years later, remains an essential and enjoyable listen. The added bonus is that it is available on vinyl again.