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Starship Plays Airplane

Starship Plays Airplane

Words by Elsa Hill
A year ago

This month we bring you Jefferson Starship performing Jefferson Airplane's set at the legendary Woodstock Festival in August 1969.  The show was recorded on 12th June 2009 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar California and features a number of their classic songs including 'Somebody To Love' and 'White Rabbit'.

In the nineties and early 2000s, those bands that had managed to survive from the 60s and 70s had emerged from the other end of the rabbit hole, finding themselves no longer ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘relics’, but more likely to be viewed as ‘Classic’ or ‘Heritage’ Rockers.  Taking advantage of the historic fortieth anniversary of the epochal Woodstock Festival in 1969, Jefferson Starship undertook a few live dates in 2009 to revisit the set they performed at the original festival on Sunday, 17th August 1969.  The Starship line up for this performance comprised Paul Kantner: Guitar, Vocals, David Frieberg: Guitar, Vocals, Cathy Richardson replacing Grace Slick on Vocals, Mark ‘Slick’ Aguilar: Lead Guitar, Jeff Pevar: Guitar and Bass Guitar, Chris Smith: Keyboards; Donny Baldwin: Drums, and also with Tom Constanten: piano. 

The opener, ‘3/5s Of A Mile In Ten Seconds’ was a Marty Balin song. The title works out to about 216 mph. Apparently, Balin just happened to see the two numbers on a newspaper page, and wove the song around them. It was a great live vehicle for the band.

‘Somebody To Love’ was written by Grace Slick’s brother-in-law, Darby Slick, in 1965.  They were in the San Francisco band The Great Society, which also included Jerry Slick, then Grace’s husband, and brother of Darby (Jerry played drums, Darby played guitar).  The song was released as a single in late 1965.  When re-recorded by Jefferson Airplane, it became one of the first hits to emerge from the San Francisco counter-cultural scene.  A driving rocker, the song addresses monogamy and fidelity, rather than a ‘Free Love’ theme.

‘Eskimo Blue Day’ was considered controversial at the time of its original 1969 release for its anti-war themes and use of profanity, the lyric - “But the human name doesn’t mean shit to a tree” - stirred up quite a storm at RCA, the Airplane’s record label.  In these days of industrial strength swearing in Gangsta Rap and Heavy Metal, the ‘profanity’ seems almost quaint.  The ecological theme seems somewhat prescient, given what has happened to the planet in the half-century plus since it was originally released, although Environmentalism was already a growing concern amongst the Hippie movement back in the sixties.  

No Jefferson Airplane based set could get away without playing ‘White Rabbit’, of course.  Originally recorded when Grace Slick was a member of The Great Society, it is widely acknowledged as one of the first songs to overtly address hallucinogenic drugs.  Slick has since somewhat qualified this assumption by saying that the song “is about following your curiosity. The White Rabbit is your curiosity” but she acknowledged that drugs are an invitation to mind-expansion, social experimentation, and exploration of the pleasures of psychedelics, particularly for the young generation of the 1960s.  Later on, Slick stated that the song was a message to hypothetical parents who would read Lewis Carroll’s novels to their young kids and then wonder why their kids would end up using and experimenting with drugs as they grow older. 

‘Volunteers’ was performed spiritedly at Woodstock, even though it wouldn’t be released on an album until six months or so later.  It was penned by Paul Kantner and Airplane vocalist Marty Balin, the song being a call to take a stand against the US government and the war in Vietnam.

Although this is undoubtedly an uneven performance, there are moments where things gel and the magic that informed the Airplane in their pomp flickers through the ranks. Sadly, the remorseless grind of time would eventually take its toll on the band.  Paul Kantner, founder member of both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, passed away on 28th January 2016, aged seventy-four, the cause of his death being ascribed to multiple organ failure and septic shock, having suffered a heart attack a few days prior.  Kantner had been a life-long smoker, and in the years prior to his death had also, as former band mate Jude Gold observed, an “on-again/ off-again love affair” with vodka.  

Jefferson Starship is still together, and features David Freiberg (vocals, acoustic guitar), Donny Baldwin (drums, percussion, vocals), Chris Smith (keyboards), Cathy Richardson (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Jude Gold (lead guitar, backing vocals). Kantner would no doubt approve; the music was bigger than the characters involved, and there is obviously still a sizeable audience out there wanting to hear it. 

With thanks to Alan Robinson 

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