Sunday , May 26 2024
The classic lineup of San Francisco's psychedelic pioneers lets its freak flag fly while its two best musicians explore the blues on two great collections.

CD Reviews: The Worst of Jefferson Airplane and Keep On Truckin’ – The Very Best of Hot Tuna

I first saw the Jefferson Airplane live in 1969 at the Civic Auditorium in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was all of 13 years old at the time and it was the first time my parents allowed me to go to a rock concert all by myself (my Grandmother had actually accompanied me to the few shows I'd attended prior to that). If only they knew…

The Civic was a mass of stoned humanity that night. The air was thick with the smell of pot. Hippie chicks danced their way through the crowd, many of them topless (a definite bonus for this particularly horny thirteen year old). But all of this was secondary to the music.

The Airplane's vocalist/guitarist Paul Kantner had been busted for pot earlier that day near Diamond Head and the band had a particular fire in their bellies that night. Parked right next to the stage (Marty Balin even bummed a few cigarettes from me between songs), I was hypnotized by the psychedelic lights and the beauty of Grace Slick decked out all in buckskin and fringe.

But more than that, I was absolutely mesmerized by the wild improvising between guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and especially bassist Jack Casady. On record, the Airplane had always been more about the interplay of its three vocalists — Kantner, Balin, and Slick. Live however, the vocals, at least on that particular night, took a backseat to the extended jamming of its two best musicians.

Kaukonen's psychedelic staccato leads cut through the air like glass shards. And Casady? In the nearly 40 years and hundreds of bands I've seen since, I've rarely seen a bassist play like that. Casady's thick, juicy runs didn't so much support Kaukonen's guitar — as bass players normally do — as much as it did run great big rumbling circles around it.

All told there was about six hours of music that night. Two from Jorma and Jack's newly formed side project, Hot Tuna, and four more from the classic Airplane lineup of Grace, Marty, Paul, Jorma, Jack, and drummer Spencer Dryden.

That lineup, and the six albums they recorded from 1966-1969 is the focus of The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, originally released in 1970 and just out in a newly remastered version with three bonus tracks from RCA Legacy.

Before splintering off into the numerous messy Starship combinations — Jeffersonian and otherwise — of the '70s and '80s, the classic Airplane lineup was the standard bearer of the psychedelic music revolution borne out of San Francisco in the '60s. What this collection reveals anew is how far that lineup progressed musically in just four short years. Each album represented on this collection spotlights a different side of Jefferson Airplane.

From their debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (with soon to be departed original members Signe Anderson and Skip Spence), comes "It's No Secret" and "Blues From An Airplane." Both tracks reveal glimpses of what the band would soon become, especially Balin's R&B vocals on "It's No Secret." But it wasn't until the release of Surrealistic Pillow, with the band completed by Dryden and Slick, that their full potential was realized. Slick brought two of her own songs, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love," to that record and they would become the band's only legitimate radio hits. Both are included here.

But by that time, Jefferson Airplane didn't really seem to care about radio at all as the band's output grew more experimental musically, and political lyrically. The albums After Bathing At Baxter's and Crown of Creation saw the band growing by leaps and bounds, with Kaukonen and Casady in particular flexing their musical muscle. The politics were becoming more overt in songs like Grace Slick's "Lather" (which she famously performed in blackface on "The Smothers Brothers Show"), while the powerful combination of Kaukonen and Casady took the music in a harder direction on tracks like "Greasy Heart" and "Watch Her Ride," here for the first time as bonus tracks.

But it is on a live version of "Plastic Fantastic Lover," from the classic live Airplane album Bless Its Pointed Little Head that the Airplane's power as a live band is best showcased. By the time Casady's bass kicks in following the track's guitar intro, it shakes the song's very foundation. By its end, Kaukonen leads are dancing around and around Casady's equally fast runs up and down the fret board. For his part, Balin also turns in one of his best vocal performances here as well.

1969's Volunteers would ultimately prove to be the swansong for the classic Jefferson Airplane lineup. Not surprisingly, it remains their most fully realized work. The songs here are more political than ever, with both the title track and Kantner's "We Can Be Together" (with it's famous rallying cry of "Up Against the Wall Motherfucker"), serving as charged anthems for the by-then wiltering flower power generation. But the bluesy sounds that Casady and Kaukonen would later mine with Hot Tuna are also represented here by Kaukonen's "Good Shepherd," a gorgeous reworking of a traditional spiritual. Jerry Garcia provides steel backup here.

With Jefferson Airplane already splintering at that point, Jorma and Jack began turning their energies to Hot Tuna, the one-time side project that by now had become increasingly a full time proposition.

Keep On Truckin': The Very Best of Hot Tuna, clocking in at about 76 minutes, features songs from eight Hot Tuna albums recorded between 1969 and 1978, all chosen by Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady themselves. Although various musicians have drifted in and out of Hot Tuna over the years, the focus has always been on Kaukonen and Casady. Likewise, the musical emphasis has always been on the blues that both musicians grew up with.

When Kaukonen and Casady perform as a duo, Kaukonen's finger picking acoustic style on tracks like Rev. Gary Davis "Hesitation Blues" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy" (Davis is the primary influence of that style) sharply contrast Casady's thick electric bass runs, which he plays as frenetically as though there was an entire band there. Another Davis cover, "Candy Man," shows up with an expanded electric lineup that includes violinist Papa John Creach and drummer Sammy Piazza. The musicians stretch out the electric format with another blues cover, this one a nine minute version of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Come Back Baby."

But it's not all covers here. Jorma Kaukonen writes many of the originals included here including "True Religion," "I See The Light," and the instrumental "Water Song." Later versions of Hot Tuna would include a second guitar, keyboards, and additional vocalists –a far cry from Hot Tuna's acoustic beginnings.

But they never stray far from their roots, coming back to blues covers by Muddy Waters ("I Can't Be Satisfied"), Robert Johnson ("Walkin Blues"), and of course Rev. Gary Davis (a live version of "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" produced by Felix Pappalardi of Mountain and Cream fame).

Where Jefferson Airplane is now a distant, hazy psychedelic memory, Hot Tuna, now back to the acoustic duo of Kaukonen and Casady continue to play shows to this day. The legacies of both bands are well represented by these two great collections from RCA Legacy.

Personally I'm a little more partial to the psychedelic improvising of the Airplane (what with the memories of topless hippie chicks dancing through arenas filled with pot smoke and all). Plus the Airplane's songs are a lot more solid. But the blues-based Hot Tuna offerings are pretty tasty too. Not to mention the fact that the group pretty much laid the groundwork for many of today's "jam bands."

So lets call it an easy five stars for Jefferson Airplane. And a strong three and a half for Hot Tuna.

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, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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