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Music Review: Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg – Baron von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun

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A reader of one of my recent reviews left a comment mentioning Baron von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun. This sent me scurrying to my record room as I had not thought of, never mind listened too, this album for quite awhile which probably means decades.

I am amazed at how much music the members of the Jefferson Airplane produced in the early 1970s, both within the group and especially their various side projects. Paul Kantner, produced the classic album, Blows Against The Empire in 1970 and he and Grace followed that with Sunfighter in 1971. 1973 would find Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg uniting to record the music that would form this album.

Baron von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun, which were nicknames given to Paul Kantner and Grace Slick by David Crosby, may not be the grand science fiction epic of Blows Against The Empire but the music is strong and has a haunting and even beautiful quality to it while the lyrics are philosophical and even playful in nature.

The album features another musical all star cast. David Crosby, John Barbata, Papa John Creach, Mickey Hart, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia all provided stellar support.

Grace Slick shares equal billing with Paul Kantner. She wrote or co-wrote six of the ten tracks and her vocals are for the most part memorable. “Ballad Of The Chrome Nun” and “Across The Board” find Grace at her post Airplane best. The first is almost a perfect performance. Written with David Freiberg, the music is catchy, the vocal superb, and the lyrics sarcastic yet playful. The second is a powerful and sexy performance from a now mature performer. If I can’t have the Grace Slick of “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit,” this one will do fine. “Fat” is just a cut below the first two and contains some of the most beautiful and moving music that she would create.

At this point Paul Kantner was producing some of the best lyrics of his career. “White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmachine Blues)” finds him expressing his thoughts about life and the future yet the song retains elements of hope. Likewise “Walkin” written with Grace Slick is a song about looking back and ahead. “Flowers Of The Night” written by Jack Traylor returns the album to the spirit of revolution.

While Baron von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun would not be a huge commercial success, it does contain some of the best music of Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s career. It is definitely worth seeking out and I will not be returning it to the shelf any time soon.  

About David Bowling

  • ExGrifter

    Thanks for reviewing this album, David.

    I remember reading a scathing review when it first dropped a few decades ago… mean old Rolling Stone, I believe.

    “Across The Board” – while a guilty pleasure – makes me cringe a little, too. It’s like Grace has been carried away by her own vocal slaloms and is begging for help. She really needed someone to reel her in, me thinks. Nonetheless, every once in a while I have to hear it, ‘cuz it’s the closest Slick ever got to letting her inner ‘sexy mama’ out on vinyl.. “… seven inches of pleasure – oooo – seven inches a’goin’ home… ”

    The Pointer Sister singing backup on “Fat” is a little gem and “Sketches of China” is like listening to a movie, with lovely young pearl divers, wise sages and grand crescendos (I must admit: I was still trying to find secret messages in their lyrics.. Even more embarrassing: I thought “Blows Against the Empire” was an actual invitation to join all Earth’s beautiful freaks in a stolen spaceship). Well, that’s what sneaking into the Filmore at the tender age of 14 will do to you… and I don’t regret a day. Peace.

  • Chris Basten

    Wow! Someone else has heard this album. I still listen to this. A classic of the west coast hippy era. The sublime yin to “blows against the empire’s” acid burnout sludge.
    [Personal contact info deleted]

  • T.Y.

    BVT&CN – paul and grace’s big warm up for the full JS. I remember how ignored this record was at the time and how it felt a little geeky to be as into it as I was. I still listen to it occasionally and its funny how it changes from year to year while retaining its goofy beauty.

    on the whole, its a good set of songs – oddly I’ve always thought that the P&G albums were either weighted toward better paul songs or better grace songs. I thought this was a better album for grace, tho this is also where her voice begins to age. paul’s songs are a little more blurry tho Sketches of China is always moving. there is a gospel edge to grace’s songs which I wish had remained a touch-stone for her later compositions. historically, this is probably the last “artistic” record they made (can’t remember if Manhole comes before or after)before they flew off to their next commercial period – this is also probably why the record has largely lanquished in obscurity – no radio play for these songs Ever. add that to the list of sins against music perpetuated by radio.

    imo the main problem with this record was the souless albeit competent druming of john barbata who’s mission seemed to be pulling P&G’s abstract expressionism into something dull mere humans might enjoy. thud thud thud – the guy obviously never broke a sweat. impecable time devoid of passion.

    btw – Harp Tree Lament is one of the great, forgotten masterpieces in the entire JA/S cannon. I saw david f last march w/ the JA and he still sings like a bird at 70 yrs old.

    thanks

  • Mike H. Winston-Salem, N.C.

    This was the great last “beyond” album by these group of artists assembled. It was the last frontier of cutting edge by them. They had a great run as many did. But this assembly of talent always gave you outerworldly(Kantner), sexual and/or beautiful. What a terrific blend of rock legends at their peak. Tollbooth is a timeless masterpiece, as was most of their earlier work. Dragon Fly and Spitfire had their moments but could not reproduce the atmosphere of all releases prior. Music for the ages.