Review: Jefferson Airplane – Live at the Fillmore and Matrix (Collectors’ Choice, 2010)
Collectors’ Choice rounds up tapes from five separate Jefferson Airplane live dates. They’re available together in a 6-CD four-pack, or as four separate single- or double-disc sets. The first two concerts document the departure of the band’s original female singer, Signe Anderson, and the arrival of their second, Grace Slick. The third entry catches the band six weeks later, after Slick had settled in and the band had been in the studio recording Surrealistic Pillow. The fourth recording was made in 1968, and finds the band returning to their original stomping ground, The Matrix. In this latter setting the band played selections from all three of their then-released albums, and introduced a pair of tunes from the upcoming Crown of Creation. At each stop you hear the band developing both as songwriters and live performers, and in the multiple versions of particular songs you hear how each performance was its own special event, rather than a rote recitation of well-worn material; the players reacted to one another’s moods and the vocalists pushed each other into new territory every night. Tapes of these performances have circulated for years, but cleaned up and packaged in colorful digipacks (with new liner notes by Craig Fenton), they’ll make great additions to your Airplane collection.
Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66 – Signe’s Farewell
By October of 1966 the Jefferson Airplane had been together for a little over a year and had released their debut album, Takes Off. They had already become a finely-tuned live unit, and the key elements of their San Francisco Sound were almost all in place. What was yet to be added was the dynamic personality and vocals of Grace Slick, who would join the day after this live set bid farewell to the band’s original female vocalist, Signe Anderson. Anderson was officially a co-lead singer with Marty Balin, but as the band’s subsequent albums would show, she didn’t achieve the parity with Balin that Grace Slick would accomplish. It wasn’t for a lack of talent though, as her harmonizing with Balin and her lead vocal on “Chauffeur Blues” show just why she was invited to join the band in the first place.
This twelve-track set presents the late show from Bill Graham’s original Fillmore Auditorium, recorded on a night that many knew was Anderson’s last. Balin says farewell as he introduces Anderson for her signature song, and the album closes with Bill Graham and the crowd giving Anderson a last round of applause before she says goodbye. The group sent her out with a powerful set that mixes covers (“Tobacco Road,” “Fat Angel,” “Midnight Hour” and “High Flyin’ Bird”), originals from their debut (“Runnin’ ‘Round This World,” “Come Up the Years” and “And I Like It”), and originals that were yet to be recorded in the studio (“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and “Go to Her”). The set shows how easily the band moved back and forth between the concise arrangements of their debut album and the lengthy jams that defined the San Francisco ballroom scene.
Opening with the 9-minute improvisational “Jam,” the live Airplane immediately proved themselves a different band than the one who’d dropped their debut album two months earlier. The folk roots of their first studio work were replaced on stage by harder electric psychedelia, evident in their conversion of “High Flyin’ Bird” from sultry folk-rock to an electric blues-rock wail. The addition of Grace Slick the following night (and the material she’d bring from the Great Society) would further change the band, but you can already hear the evolution in progress here, particularly in the freedom of Balin’s vocals and the instrumental explorations of Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. Collectors’ Choice documents the band’s full transition with the following night’s set (Grace’s Debut) and a set recorded six weeks later (We Have Ignition), right after the band had waxed Surrealistic Pillow.
Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/16/66 – Grace’s Debut
On the final evening of a three-night stand at the original Fillmore, Jefferson Airplane welcomed their new co-lead singer, Grace Slick. The night before they’d bid farewell to singer Signe Anderson (the late set of which has been released on Signe’s Farewell), and in closing out the weekend they put the band’s most famous lineup in place. The Sunday night set list shared several songs with previous night’s, including a cover of “Tobacco Road” that sounds neither like John Loudermilk’s original nor the Nashville Teen’s 1964 hit single, and the Marty Balin originals “And I Like It” and “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds.” The set added songs from the band’s debut and a few more covers, including a pre-Youngbloods take on “Let’s Get Together” and a roaring guitar-fueled vision of Leiber & Stoller’s “Kansas city.”
Slick provided a striking visual addition to the band, as evidenced by a pair of photographs included on this set’s digipack, but her vocal and writing presence in the band was yet to fully flower. She sounds tentative in harmonizing with Balin, and the signature songs she’d brought with her from the Great Society, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” either weren’t played or aren’t included in this condensation of the night’s two sets. Slick’s place in the band would solidify quickly as they gigged, recorded Surrealistic Pillow and returned to the Fillmore the following month, as documented on We Have Ignition. This first set feels tentative in contrast to Anderson’s last, though you can feel them getting more comfortable with each song, and particularly when they hit the finale, “It’s No Secret.”
The second set opens slowly, crawling into the slow blues of “Tobacco Road.” Slick sounds almost transformed from the first set, wailing alongside Balin and cutting through with powerful, original vocal lines on “High Flyin’ Bird.” Kaukonen takes to the spotlight on “Kansas City,” singing lead and playing atmospheric blues guitar. His brief solo on “And I Like It” is even more powerful, and a perfect compliment to a searing vocal by Balin. The band stretches out experimentally on the ten-minute “Thing,” including a Jack Casady bass solo, and closes the set with a strong version of the soon-to-be-recorded “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds.” Slick was still singing the band’s set in the shadow of Anderson’s original performances, but the strength of her vocals and the moments of originality on night number one point to the new combination’s rich future.
Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 11/25,27/66 – We Have Ignition
Only weeks after making her debut as the new co-vocalist of the Jefferson Airplane (documented on Grace’s Debut), Grace Slick had lost the tentativeness that marked her initial appearance. In the month-and-a-half between performances, the band recorded Surrealistic Pillow (which included the Airplane studio debut of both Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden), and added mightily to their song catalog. Slick brought along the Great Society’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” each of which became Top 10 singles, and Balin, Kantner and Kaukonen added originals that make up the bulk of these two live sets. Altogether, seven of Surrealistic Pillow’s eleven tracks are included, and a few pieces left off the original album (Kaukonen’s “In the Morning” and Skip Spence’s “J.P.P. McStep Blues”) were still in the live set. Omitted is the show-stopping “Somebody to Love,” reported to have been played on both the 25th and 26th, but not included here.
For many in the audience, this was the first time they’d heard the band’s new material, as Surrealistic Pillow wasn’t released until the following February. The songs are still very fresh, and the band takes the opportunity to try out “Plastic Fantastic Lover” and “She Has Funny Cars” several times across the multiple sets. The tape opens with the former already in progress, and the interplay between Balin and Slick is electric. These mono recordings are more primitive than the stereo tapes from October’s transitional sets (Signe’s Farewell and Grace’s Debut), but Slick’s imaginative vocalizations still shine, and the band’s playing is tight and hard. Balin and Slick push each other to great heights, both on the band’s originals and on cover songs that had become regular features of the band’s set. Though they’d played it many times before, Balin and Slick wring everything they can out of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “High Flyin’ Bird,” spurring each other higher and higher.
The band lightens up for the sweet vocal interlude “My Best Friend.” Written by Skip Spence (who’d since moved on to Moby Grape), it sounds more like the Grape than the Airplane. The scant applause that greets “White Rabbit” gives a sense of just how new this material was to the audience, and though the band hadn’t fully discovered how to really kill with this song in live performance, the power of Slick’s vocal still makes an incredible impression. So too Balin’s searing lead on “It’s No Secret,” bolstered by terrific harmony singing from Slick. The early set ends with Kaukonen’s “She Has Funny Cars,” bringing to a close a performance that is notably short of jamming. The second set opens with extended treatments of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life,” each leaving room for instrumental play.
The rest of the first night’s late set includes several of the band’s regular covers (John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road” and a dreamy take on Donovan’s “Fat Angel”), repeats of Surrealistic Pillow album tracks, and the album outtakes “In the Morning” and “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues.” The first evening closes with Jorma Kaukonen singing lead on his original blues “In the Morning.” The second disc covers the band’s late set on Sunday, joining the set opener “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” in progress, repeating songs from the opening night in different order, adding the album outtakes “Let Me In” and “Today,” and stretching out exuberantly on an off-the-cuff encore of “The Other Side of Life.” The surprise encore also offers up the one-off instrumental “My Grandfather’s Clock.” The tape transcriptions leave the inter-song continuity in place, and though the band isn’t particularly chatty, the spaces help give a sense of the show’s pacing.
Return to the Matrix 2/1/68
In contrast to the three 1966 releases in this collection (Signe’s Farewell, Grace’s Debut and We Have Ignition), this 1968 set finds the Airplane a great deal farther along. By 1968 the classic six-piece Airplane formation had released Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s in 1967, and were about to embark on recording Crown of Creation. Their performance includes tracks from all three of their released albums (including “It’s No Secret” and a rare performance of “Blues from an Airplane” from Takes Off), a pair of tracks from the upcoming sessions (“Share a Little Joke” and “Ice Cream Phoenix,” the latter still a jam at this point, and each their only known live performance), two covers that had long been in their live set (Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of Life” and Donovan’s “Fat Angel”), and their last known live performance of Leiber & Stoller “Kansas City,” turned into a superb blues jam by Jorma Kaukonen.
The show was something of a homecoming as the Airplane returned to the club where they’d debuted (albeit with a somewhat different lineup) in 1965. By this point the group was internationally famous, with two albums that had cracked the Top 10 and two hit singles, each of of which are played here. They’d become international representatives of the San Francisco scene. The band remained remarkably fresh, even on material that had been in their set for years. Marty Balin sings a wonderfully emotional version of “Today,” the band plays an energetic version of “The Other Side of Life,” and the groove running through “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” pushes the vocalists to terrific heights. The latter is propelled by Jack Casady’s imaginative bass line, and features terrific 12-string figures and a blistering solo. Slick’s show piece, “White Rabbit,” is more fully formed on stage than it as two years earlier, and “Plastic Fanstastic Lover” has a memorable terrific guitar opening.
The chemistry between Balin and Slick, evident immediately in the weeks after she joined the band, is even stronger here, with Slick adding terrific wails behind Balin on his signature “It’s No Secret.” The newer material offers fertile territory for exploration on stage, particularly the multi-part “Won’t You Try / Saturday Afternoon.” Though the tapes are mono, the instruments are more prominent than in the recordings used for We Have Ignition. There’s some tape hiss, the sound system occasionally evidences a buzz, the rhythm guitar is mixed too hot in a few spots, and the vocals can get a bit edgy, but overall this is a dynamic recording of a key performance in the Airplane’s flight. The set closes with a mesmerizing 10-minute version of “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” complete with a raging guitar solo that briefly quotes “Spoonful.”
Airplane fans haven’t ever really been wanting for live material, with Bless Its Pointed Little Head and Thirty Seconds Over Winterland released during the years of the group’s ascension, and archival recordings Sweeping up the Spotlight Live at the Fillmore East, At Golden Gate Park, Last Flight released over the past few years, and numerous bootlegs circulating among collectors. But having official issues of these historic turning points – particularly Anderson’s farewell and Slick’s debut – are welcome additions. Anderson was a terrific foil for Marty Balin (her background wails on “Tobacco Road” truly elevate the performance), and proving the band’s San Francisco sound – missing from their debut album – was firmly entrenched in their live performances early on. Slick’s debut shows off the immediate bond she formed with the band, and the November shows find her established as an equal. The 1968 performance finds the Airplane in the thick of their most fertile period, with a deep catalog of original material and a freedom on stage that would serve them well at Woodstock the following year.