Review: Jefferson Airplane, Sweeping Up the Spotlight
A couple of years ago I revisited the classic Jefferson Airplane albums Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter’s, Crown of Creation and Volunteers when remastered versions with added tracks were released. I was suprised by how well the band’s music held up. The lineup of Marty Balin and Grace Slick (vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar, vocals), Paul Kantner (rhythm guitar, vocals), Jack Cassidy (bass) and Spencer Dryden (drums) had a lot going for it. They were all very good musicians, they were flying free creatively, and they were blessed with the otherworldly and instantly recognizeable intertwined vocal wails of Balin and Slick. The classic Airplane albums are clearly of a particular time and place but their high level of musical quality and inventiveness transcends their context. Nobody else sounded like them. Nobody ever has.
Now, almost 38 years after the fact, we get the classic Airplane recorded live over two nights at the Fillmore East in November 1969. Two tracks from these gigs (Good Shepherd and Plastic Fantastic Lover) appeared as additional tracks on the remastered version of Volunteers; the rest are previously unreleased. I caught the band live in the mid to late ’60s a couple of times and the gigs weren’t very noteworthy. Too bad I didn’t make it to either of the shows excerpted here. The performances are uneven but the inconsistency reflects a band of creatively improvising musicians who are reaching for the stars and aren’t afraid of failure. They don’t always make it but they are almost always exciting. Kaukonen rips off one incendiary solo after another and Cassidy produces a virtuoso bass solo on “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” that has to be heard to be believed. Cassidy has long had a reputation as an extraordinarily inventive and talented bass player and you can hear why here. He is amazing. I wondered if the reason the recordings weren’t released for so long was because the sound quality was bad but that isn’t the case. It’s about average for a live rock gig from this period. Given that the sound is acceptable and the music is often thrilling you can’t help but wonder why the release was delayed this long.
Through the mid to late ’60s the Airplane were a great band but it wouldn’t last. Put off by the drama and ego trips within the group, Balin was becoming increasingly disengaged. Cassidy and Kaukonen formed Hot Tuna as a side project in 1969 and it began taking more and more of their attention and interest as conditions in the Airplane deteriorated. Fed up with the drama and incessant drug use Dryden quit in 1970. Balin left the following year. The band continued with different lineups and name changes for a long time but after Volunteers – which was released the same month these gigs were recorded – they were pretty much over as an exciting, creative, inventive group. But it was glorious while it lasted and some of that glory is captured on Sweeping Up the Spotlight.
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