In February of 1968, at what many feel was the height of their success commercial as well as artistic, Jefferson Airplane returned to the first club they had ever played for a show that included nineteen of their songs, some played live for the first and only time, and ran for just over one hundred minutes. Return to the Matrix, 02/01/68 is a newly released two disc live recording of that concert. And while the sound quality leaves something to be desired, it is a dynamic reminder of the band at its best.
The show opens with a wailing Grace Slick doing a classic version of “Somebody to Love.” This is followed by Marty Balin blasting “Young Girl Sunday Blues.” Between songs you can hear the band rapping with each other and the audience. “She Has Funny Cars” features a rocking guitar solo by Jorma Kaukonen. Grace Slick’s fantastical “Two Heads” follows in what Craig Fenton’s album notes indicate is the last live performance of the song which may have been better suited to the studio. A more subdued “Martha” is the fifth song in the set. It shows the band in a more contemplative mode and provides a nice contrast to some of the more high energy tracks.
“Kansas City” is an opportunity for some low down Kaukonen blues. Its boozy vocal and screaming guitar remind you of just how fine a blues player Kaukonen was. This, too unfortunately, was the final live performance of the piece. The blend of voices and instrumentation on “The Other Side of This Life” could use some engineering, but it gets cleared up in time for the solos. They end up sounding something like a jam band, and it works. Then, once again, the band takes it down a notch with the sweetly lyrical “Today.” Grace comments at the end: “That’s our heavy material.”
“Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” builds to a breathless vocal crescendo that leaves the band happily joking with the audience. The first disc closes with Balin’s “It’s No Secret” and a darkly plaintive “Blues From an Airplane.” According to Fenton’s notes, this is the only live performance of this song from the band’s first album.
“Watch Her Ride,” first cut on the second disc, and “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” with some of Slick’s patented chanting wails which ends the set, are the last of six songs from the After Bathing at Baxter’s album. Surrealistic Pillow is also represented by six tunes, three of which follow: “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” the band’s biggest hit “White Rabbit,” and “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds.”
“Share a Little Joke” is a new Balin tune that would be included on their next album, but was never done again in life performance. The ten-minute forty-five second instrumental version of “Ice Cream Phoenix” that follows is again a one time performance. The version of the song on the Crown of Creation album is only three minutes and includes vocals, but neither version seems to have been included in future concerts. The set also includes a nearly nine-minute cover of Donovan’s “Fat Angel,” which may well be more well known than the original.
All in all this is an album that fans of the Airplane and those of us just plain nostalgic for the psychedelic sixties will welcome with open arms. It is not often that after more than forty years you can get to listen to a great band at the top of their form playing live versions of both songs you’ve come to love in versions you may have never heard. On some of these tracks, it feels like you’re discovering the joys of Jefferson Airplane all over again.