Grace Slick - vocals; Marty Balin - vocals, percussion; Paul Kantner - vocals, guitar; Jorma Kaukonen - lead guitar; Jack Casady - bass; Spencer Dryden - drums
More than any other album of the era, Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow would come to define the emerging San Francisco sound, with its psychedelic fusion of folk, pop, rock, and blues elements. This album, which first entered the charts at the tail end of March 1967, would signal a vibrant musical shift in America, where the lines between musical genres began blurring forever.
This performance was recorded on opening night of a three day run where Jefferson Airplane opened and closed for two blues legends, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. This set captures the group at this most pivotal moment in time, just days after the release of Surrealistic Pillow, and just a few short weeks before the album would hit the charts, bringing international attention not only to the band, but also to the San Francisco music and dance hall scenes in the process. Immediately apparent here is that the Jefferson Airplane had progressed a remarkable distance over the course of the past several months. Their sound was rapidly evolving and becoming far more distinctive. They sound much less like the folk-pop oriented band of 1966 and were becoming more original and more aggressive simultaneously. Grace Slick was firmly on board by this point, and her presence was unquestionably a strong element in the change in sound, but it was the core musicians, Paul, Jorma, Jack, and Spencer, who were truly strengthening the band's sound. Paul was becoming a more aggressive rhythm guitar player and in the process was freeing up Jorma, allowing him to cut loose and develop on stage. However, a significant amount of credit goes to the rhythm section of Jack and Spencer. They were truly developing at an astonishing rate, becoming the unique and creative backbone of the San Francisco scene.
This first of the two Jefferson Airplane sets performed that evening initially relies on familiar first album songs, soon to be dropped from the live repertoire in favor of new material. First up is Marty Balin's slow blues, "And I Like It." Considering who else was on the bill this night, it took courage for Balin to perform this blues based number. Balin's vocal delivery has become considerably more aggressive than earlier versions of this song, and it's a strong confident performance. This is followed by "Don't Slip Away," a writing collaboration between Balin and Moby Grape guitarist (and former Airplane drummer) Skip Spence. Both of these songs, as well as the song to follow, represent the band's recent past while clearly pointing the way toward the future. The group was beginning to achieve a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental intensity, and this balance is what set them apart from many of their contemporaries. Bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver also had superb adventurous musicians during this early era, but in the vocal department, few could match the dynamic vocal prowess of Airplane. A cover of John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" also conveys a newfound confidence, and it is a delight to hear all three of these first album songs within the context of the more developed Surrealistic Pillow sound. Although these songs had been performed for some time, they have a new energy here, sounding heavier than performances just a month or two prior.
With limited stage time, Airplane closes this first set with a strong performance of "Somebody To Love," one of the songs that Grace Slick brought into the band from her days with the Great Society. Rearranged in the studio, with the rumored help of Jerry Garcia, this song would soon provide a launching pad toward commercial success and come to symbolize the upcoming "Summer of Love." Here the song segues directly into an early version of "Leave You Alone," which at this point is essentially an extended improvisational coda to "Somebody To Love" that allows Balin and the group to jam out for a few minutes to conclude the set. This set closer has both Slick and Balin beginning to display a much stronger, more charismatic stage presence and instrumentally, the band has become significantly more aggressive and adventurous, particularly Jorma and Jack, who are beginning to propel the group's music into areas previously unexplored.
These March 1967 sets capture Jefferson Airplane at perhaps their happiest time as a unit, with everyone contributing. Over the course of the next few months, the group would become international stars, and their lives would change forever, becoming infinitely more complicated.
Written by Alan Bershaw