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Music Review: Jefferson Airplane – The Woodstock Experience

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This summer marks the 40th Anniversary of 1969's historic Woodstock Music And Arts Festival. As part of the celebration, Sony/Legacy Recordings is releasing a limited edition series of deluxe, double disc recordings by five of the artists whose performances at Woodstock changed the world.

Dubbed The Woodstock Experience, each double-CD set pairs a classic 1969 album from the featured artist, along with their full festival performance. All of the concert recordings — by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Sly And The Family Stone, and Santana — appear on these CDs in their entirety for the first time ever. All are packaged in eco-friendly sleeves, that include a mini-version of the original album cover and a 16 X 20 inch double-sided fold-out poster. With this series, which we are also calling The Woodstock Experience, Blogcritics will be reviewing each of these commemorative sets.

1969 was a strange year for the Jefferson Airplane.

Not only did the band play at Woodstock (they were actually the first band to sign on) — they also released their final album with what most fans agree is their classic lineup, Volunteers.

They would close out the same year by playing the notorious Altamont festival — the free "Woodstock West" headlined by the Rolling Stones which became as infamous for its darkness and murder as Woodstock was for its peace, love, and music. By that time, though, the Airplane themselves were a band already in its own considerable state of disarray.

By contrast, Jefferson Airplane's performance at Woodstock was a triumph, even if it was a stoned one. On the just released Woodstock Experience, that complete performance is captured for the first time, and coupled with that same original band's great Volunteers swansong album.

Although there's nothing really new to offer fans on the Volunteers part of this set (mainly because there is already a mostly superior remastered recording available), the repackaging here is still nicely, if modestly done. The album cover is reproduced in a nice mini sleeve, right down to the disc itself, which is colored in beautiful, 1969 RCA Records vintage orange. Nice touch there.

The music itself has also aged quite well. Opening and closing with "We Can Be Together" and "Volunteers" respectively — the band rocks ferociously as Grace Slick and Paul Kantner bark out their incendiary call to revolution with lines like "up against the wall, motherfuckers."

Even though the two songs are the ones most people remember from the album, they are essentially one and the same anyway. Marty Balin, who would later become better known for his love ballads, is also in fine rocking form here as he screams "Got a revolution" on the title track.

Lesser known than those two tracks, however, are the tracks spotlighting guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist extraordinaire Jack Casady. Kaukonen's "Good Shepard" features some of his finest wah-wah guitar playing on record (not to mention a damn fine vocal), as Casady's spellbinding bass runs circles around it. On Grace Slick's little remembered "Hey Frederick," the Hot Tuna pair likewise turn a skeletal song idea into an improvisational wonder of jamming goodness.

The Woodstock performance captured on this set is likewise notable, first of all for it's length. Unlike the other bands captured on these Woodstock Experience CDs, the Airplane's set spans part of the first disc, as well as all of the second.

Heard for the first time here are concert staples like "The Other Side Of This Life," where Casady's thunderous bass is wisely put front and center in the mix. The band comes out as hot as the sun that was just rising, as Grace declares the band will be playing "morning maniac music."

They had stayed up all night waiting for their turn to play, and on the just-released DVD deluxe boxed-set edition of the film, Grace in particular also looks pretty stoned.

Although the performance here doesn't always quite measure up to Airplane's great 1969 live album, Bless its Pointed Little Head, the band still sounds great — especially Kaukonen, Casady and sixties session keyboard great, Nicky Hopkins. The one sore spot here is in the vocal mix, which at times sounds like it's coming through a transistor radio — or a pair of those iPod ear thingies. The sound is tinny to the point of being downright irritating.

But at least they got those Casady bass runs down right. Casady sounds amazing on the hit "Somebody To Love," although Grace is already running out of gas by the time of this, the second song of their set. To her credit, she does sound a lot better on the version of "White Rabbit" which comes later. But by the time of "3/5 Of A Mile in 10 Seconds," Casady and Kaukonen pretty much have taken over anyway, with the rest of the band doing whatever they can just to keep up.

For his part, Marty Balin does the most admirable job, keeping pace with Kaukonen and Casady on a considerably faster-paced version of "Plastic Fantastic Lover" than the one found on Pointed Head.

By this time, Kaukonen and especially Casady are basically playing in their own universe, blowing away pretty much anything in their way. You can start to see why these two guys would eventually just end up doing their own thing in Hot Tuna.

The set slows down just a bit with the Airplane's version of "Wooden Ships," the song made famous by Crosby Stills & Nash. But it picks right back up with a raucous version of "Volunteers," which finds Balin in particular preaching the revolution to the morning maniacs like he really means it.

Here again, the sound rather frustratingly drops off in places. But the band sounds so good that even Grace appears to wake up for this one. This continues on a punked-up version of the minor hit "Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil." And don't look now, but Casady gets a filthy sounding little bass solo in here.

So this is mainly a case of ebb and flow in terms of performance. In other words, it's fairly typical of the west coast psychedelic music of the period, and especially of the Airplane themselves in a live setting. It doesn't always work — and the sound mix gets in the way more often than it should. But when it does work, the Airplane approach greatness much more often than not.

The Woodstock Experience sets arrive both digitally and in stores on June 30.

Next up for our series will be Santana.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • JC Mosquito

    There was a t8me when I was nutz for anything Airplane – not so much anymore – I just wish they could have pulled off at least one essential album instead of the great scattered tracks over their first few releases.

  • Blackie

    I purchased all five cds and they are all great. Great job on the reissues. How come no Ten Years After?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I hear it has to do with getting clearance from either the band or the old record company (I think they were on London/Deram back then). Anyway, thanks for the comment.

    -Glen

  • Feodorick

    That comment on the Airplane getting too spread out in terms of consistency is very true. I hate when one has to go to a “Best of XXX” to get a decent album from musicians you like. Yep, they counted many white rabbits, and it shows… But that Woodstock recording is really decent, which makes me happy !