Monday 9 April 2018

Jefferson Airplane: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

You can buy 'Wild Thyme - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Jefferson Airplane/Starship' by clicking here!


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! The Jefferons were just as famous as a live act as they were as a studio one, but surprisingly didn't clock up quite as many gigs as their contemporaries - some 580 off gigs under the Airplane name and some 920 unde the Starsjip name (Including several hundred for the 'less official' Paul Kantner line-up). The band, of course, started as a live act and played regular gigs for over a year before they made their first record while they're also one of only two bands (alongside the Grateful Dead) to have played the triumvirate of key 1960s gigs: Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont. Here are five of the most important:
1) Where: The Matrix Club,  San Francisco When: August 13th 1965  Why: First Gig Setlist: Unknown but likely to include [1] High Flying Bird [8] It's No Secret [9] Tobacco Road [10] Come Up The Years [13] Don't Slip Away [14] Chauffeur Blues [24] 3/5ths Of A Mile In Ten Seconds [43] 'The Other Side Of Life' (all songs performed the same month!)
Oh to have been Marty Balin on this Summer 1965 night when this dream of several years' duration finally came true! Marty had got into music the long way round, becoming a pop balladeer in 1962 and starting his own pure folk outfit in 1963 named 'The Town Criers' before finding his dreams of being a singer-songwriter dashed. However Marty wasn't done yet, put all his celebrity money into opening up a new club named The Matrix and tapped into all his contacts to form the first version of what will become Jefferson Airplane. Little by little the pieces have fallen into place, with all of the line-up who played on the debut album already here bar Skip and Jack (for now Jerry Peloquin is the band's drummer and Bob Harvey is still the Airplane's bass player). The press have been invited. Local cheerleaders have been asked to come along. And here, tonight, is where the dream dies or falls. Of course it was a success - how could it not be after all the rehearsals that have taken place to get to this moment? By San Franciscan standards the Jeffersons are a tight disciplined and well rehearsed band with a powerful sound louder than anything else in their entire state. Ralph Gleason, guest reporter more used to covering jazz groups, didn't just like this band but adored them, later giving up his post to become the band's first biographer and risking his own career as several jazz purists wrote in protest after his article proclaiming the band's new distinctive sound. Gleason's ravings brought the attentions of RCA ('I don't know who they will sign for, but they must sign for somebody!' Gleason said) and this, truly, is where the Airplane took off. a year beore the debut record. How thrilling for this band of misfits who'd all, individually, for so long struggled to knock on the door of fame. But how great for Marty as not just his band but his club are the in-place to be in San Francisco for years to come and his great gamble has at last paid off, years down the line- and how!
2) Where: Grunt Headquarters, New York City When: December 7th 1968 Why: Rooftop Gig - Before The Beatles! Setlist: [54] The House At Pooneil Corners
Film director Jean-Luc Goddard responded to being 'fired' from his initial attempts to make a film about The Rolling Stones (with shots of them arranging 'Sympathy For The Devil' re-edited without his permission and released as 'One Plus One') by agreeing to shoot the Airplane. He wanted the gig to be big, bold, brilliant, rebellious! But cheap. That led tothe brainwave of performing on the roof (details vary where but we know it was in New York City and in all loikelihood was on top of the RCA office building). If that sounds familiar to you and you reckon the Jeffersons were just responding to the Beatles, then look at the date again: this is a full six weeks before the fab four do the same in London. What's more, one of the cameramen is Michael Lindsay-Hogg who will go on to work on the 'Let It Be' project and in all likelihood chatted to the band about this concert. The contrasts between the two demonstrate the differencews between the bands and their respective local forces. The Beatles played for half an hour before the local arm of the law finally got it together long enough to cut the sound; the Airplane only managed it for one song before their amplification was pulled, although in both cases the police were more apologetic than anything (you can see this in the surviving film of the Airplane's gigs where the constable admits he liked the sound and would have the band play all day if he could, but he's worried someone will report a disturbance and get his 'oys' into trouble for not sorting it out). Which is all the more surprising given that the Airplane play, not one of their usual hits or one of their more melodic numbers, but the most wild nihilistic angry song in their setlist. 'The House At Pooneil Corners' was, back in December 1968, a relatively new song off the 'Crown Of Creation' album, about the destruction of the Earth by some mad politician with the memorable chorus 'the idiots have won!' Back in 1968 only the profanities in [59] 'We Can Be Together' were more shocking. The end result is wild, woolly, dangerous and raw - just the way the Airplane like them - but it's a shame that the sound is (Understandably) so poor and that the band don't get to play for longer. This clip, never used in anything at the time (Goddard got bored easily!) but was resurrected for the 'Fly Jefferson Airplane' documentary DVD.
3) Where: Woodstock When: August 17th 19769 Why: Biggest Crowd?!  Setlist: [43] The Other Side Of This Life [20] Somebody To Love [24] 3/5ths Of A Mile In Ten Seconds [40] Won't You Try?-Saturday Afternoon [65] Eskimo Blue Day [29] Plastic Fantastic Lover [64] Wooden Ships [69] Uncle Sam's Blues [68] Volunteers [30] The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil [18] Come Back Baby [28] White Rabbit [54] The House At Pooneil Corners
Yasgur's Farm was enjoying a balmy Sunday morning when the Airplane finally took the stage following several delays and rainstorms. It's a measure of hos big the Airplane were that they were booked as the headline act for the Saturday, the show's second biggest day - and a measure of how humble they were that the Jeffersons never complained, even when they were moced to a new shift at 5am. Many hippies still thought they were dreaming as Grace promised them 'music in bed' and 'morning maniac music' before shouting, as much to posterity as to the crowd, that 'it's a new dawn!' The Airplane were, after all, a band that just had to be here. So many of their songs had imagined a future hippie utopia and here it was, as close as any hippie movement ever did come to their talk of brotherhood and hope. They were't to know that this was a peak, rather than just a stepping off point and that Altamont, with its murder (in stark contrast to the six births that took place at Woodstock) ending the dream seen here. Maybe the Airplane even saw that coming too, ending their set with the nightmarish 'House At Pooneil Corner' after an otherwise blissed out gig where Grace is visibly tripping and the band play loose but funky. 'Wooden Ships' is an interesting choice, given that CSN are going to be performing a radically different rendition of the exact same song just a few hours later. Poor Marty is all but sidelined, especially compared to the band's Monterey set, but the band are still at the end of being on top of their game and the biggest crowd they ever played to really seem to take the Airplane to their hearts. The best wake-up call ev-uh! Odd, then, that the Airplane were cut from the original direct'rs cut of the film, with 'Volunteers' appearing on the soundtrack album and 'Wom't You Try?' and 'Uncle Sam's Blues' appearing in the director's cut of the movie. After playing this gig the Jeffersons were flown by helicopter direct to the Dick Cavett Show where they performed a song they didn't even play this night [59] 'We Can Be Together'.
4) Where: Kabuki Theatre, San Francisco When: March 14th 1974 Why: First Starship Gig Setlist: Unknown, with this the setlist from the third gig on March 26th: [78] Sunrise [79] Hi*Jack [80] Home [81] Have You Seen The Stars Tonite? [82] XM [83] Starship [113] Milk Train [128] Sketches Of China [119] The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun [125] Harp Tree Lament 'Papa John's Down Home Blues' [64] Wooden Ships 'Come Again Toucan?' 'Epic #38' 'Theme From The Movie Manhole' [68] Volunteers
Ther first tentative steps of  Jefferson Starship oten gets overlooked in the band's discography, eighteen months after the last gasp by the Airplane with a gig at the Winterland Arena on September 22nd 1972. In true Jefferson style - and in contrast to the Airplane rehearsals that went on for weeks - this low-key gig was billed as an 'open rehearsal' where curious fans could see the band learning tpo jam on songs, rougher even than the late-period Airplane. For now, with debut 'Dragonfly'  still six months away, this band's setlist are an odd mix of Paul and Grace's solo albums and a few Airplane favourites, with more performed from Grace's 'Manhole' record than any other record. This is also the first gig since 1966 that doesn't feature either [20] 'Somebody To Love' or '[28] 'White Rabbit'. Of particular note is the exclusive instrumental performed near-solo by Papa John Creach and the entire second side of 'Blows Against The Empire' only ever performed on this short tour. All the band are in place already with the exception of Pete Sears - for now David Freiberg plays all the bass while Grace plays all the keyboards. Spare a thought for poor Craig Chaquico though - his first band Steelwind (featuring Pauk's music teacher Jack Traylor) were the band's support act, meaning that Craig never left the stage for hours!
5) Where: National Mall, Washington When: October 7th 1989 Why: Final Gig With Majority of Founder Members Setlist: [20] Somebody To Love [51] Crown Of Creation 'Baby What You Want Me To Do?' [19] She Has Funny Cars [68] Volunteers
It makes perfect sense that the final ever show counted by fans as 'proper' Jefferson Airplane or Starship (Paul got into trouble for using the 'Jefferson' name without permission!)  is a free concert for charity, given that the band had performed so many. This was a 'March For The Homeless' charity perfomed in a shopping mall in Washington and broadcast on TV alongside set headliner Stevie Wonder and Dead drummer Mickey Hart. As a result this is a much shorter set than one the band normally played, with noen of the tracks from that year's reunion album (which sounded better on tour). The last time five of the band were together (everyone but Spencer form the 'classic' line-up) and the last time Grace ever appeared on stage (three weeks short of her fiftieth birthday), it's a sad place to say goodbye, the band who once stood for freedom and brilliance reduced to wearing 1980s fashions and turning in low-key versions of some of their best known songs. Mind you, 'She Has Funny Cars' suggests that the old rebellious spirit is alive in there somewhere and a surprise one-off cover of 'Baby What You Want Me To Do' shows that the band were still adding surprises, even on compact charity shows.

Three Key Cover Versions:

Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!)  Most covers naturally enough feature the Jeffersons' two big hit singles for which we've included what we consider to be the best versions of each around. Otherwise Jefferson covers are few and far between, even with [22] 'Today' becing recognised as something of a latter-day classic with several cod-operatic and X factor winner versions of the song (all of them equally horrific). The Jeffersons were never covered as often as many of their peers and have never had a full 'tribute' album dedicated to them like so many of their peers, but there remain some very good cover versions out there to. Here are three of our favourites:
1) It's No Secret (Susan Barrett, A-Side, 1968)
One of the earliest Jefferson covers out there, Northern Soul singer Susan Barnett's twist on Masrty's rock and roll goodtime song is to make the Airplane sound temporarily like every band around before hippie-dom, starting off with the 'square aaahs' of The Association. This is still a nice version of a nice song though, which along the way has swapped genders, gained a jazz lounge feel and features some terrific Jorma-style fuzz guitar. Infectious and fun, this version is quite different too, with a 'doo doo doo' middle eight that brings the song to a full stop and slowly reaches up to the sky with a moment of real beauty and splendour. Released on RCA Victor in between 'Baxters' and 'Crown Of Creation', this song is proof of just how musical the Airplane were behind all the society shaking.This was one of Susan's last hurrahs after a career stretching back to 1959 - she's best lnown for soul classic  'What's It Gonna Be?' but never got the respect she deserved, all too often unfavourably comapred to Dustry Springfield despite having, to these ears, the stronger voice.
2) White Rabbit (George Benson, 'White Rabbit' 1971)
Jazz and drugs 'feel' as if they should go hand-in-hand, with this American jazz guitarist enjoying the Bolero-style flick of the wrist that suggests he knew the Great Society original of this song at least as well as the Airplane's. The song also has a decidedly Spamish flavour, starting off with Mariachi trumpet before slowly moving on to the slow-building crescendo of the guitar and drums. I'm not sure this instrumental version ever quite fed my head in quite the same way as the Airplane's, but it's an interesting version, building in size and scope with ecvery passing verse as more instruments join in. A contemporary of the band's (born the year after Paul and Marty) you can see why this song would have appealed to George's jazz instincts and the horns and trumpets fit a lot better than expected, bringing out just what a beautiful melody there is at the heart of this song, all too often overlooked by the words.
3) Somebody To Love (Marsha Hunt, A-side, 1973)
If 'Rabbit' somehow sounded more conventional in its cover version, the Airplane's most conventional song sounds more weird than ever here thanks to a glam-rock makeover from the singer best known for her role in the musical 'Hair' (she's also, reportedly, the inspiration for Rolling Stones song 'Brown Sugar', for which I think I'd sue if that were me!) 'Somebody's rock swagger and pleading is changed to a feminist flag-waver, slowed down to a cool strut and with Marsha not singing so much as spitting out the words. Elsewhere the band is all a bit manic, but there's a good stomping beat on this version and it's good to hear this song performed with exactly the same 'scare' factor as Grace's without this being a copycat version. Do you need this version of 'Somebody To Love?'Maybe not, but it shows how strong the song is that it can stand up to being treated in quite such a loud and gruff manner. The original is still surely best though - both of them!

Other Jefferson-related mayhem can be read on the following pages of this website:


'Takes Off!' (1966)

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967)

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967)

'Crown Of Creation' (1968) 

'Volunteers' (1969)

'Bark' (1971)

'Blows Against The Empire' (Kantner)  (1971)

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972)

'Long John Silver' (1972)

'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' (Kantner/Slick/Freiberg) (1973)

'Dragonfly' (1974)

'Red Octopus' (1975)

'Spitfire' (1976)

‘Earth’ (1978)

'Modern Times' (1981)

'Winds Of Change' (1982)

'The Empire Blows Back'# aka 'The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship) (1983)

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983)

'Jefferson Airplane' (1989)

Non-Album Songs 1966-1984

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1974

Surviving TV Footage 1966-1989

Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part One 1966: 1978

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part Two 1979-2013

Essay: Why Flying In Formation Was So Special For The Jeffersons

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