Sunday , September 20 2020
Although Bless It's Pointed Little Head remains the definitive live Jefferson Airplane album, this previously undiscovered show comes close.

Music Review: Jefferson Airplane – Sweeping Up The Spotlight: Live At The Fillmore East 1969

In 1969 when this show was originally recorded, Jefferson Airplane were at the top of their game and regarded by many as one of the best live bands on the planet. At least, if you were fortunate enough to witness them on a good night. The truth, as revealed by the various live recordings of the band which have surfaced throughout the years, is that Jefferson Airplane's live shows could be wildly hit and miss affairs.

The definitive live Jefferson Airplane album — and indeed one of the greatest live albums ever made — remains Bless It's Pointed Little Head, recorded at the Fillmore East and West during 1968. On that album, the performance is simply a marvel to behold — particularly the dazzling exchanges between guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. There have been a number of live albums released by the band since, including several recorded at the Fillmore. As often as they played there, the Airplane — along with the Grateful Dead — could almost be considered the house band at the celebrated sixties rock venue.

Still, none of these albums have ever come close to recapturing the magic of Pointed Head. This newly unearthed, previously unreleased concert doesn't match it either. But it comes pretty damn close in a few places.

Recorded in 1969 at the Fillmore East on the heels of their great Volunteers album, the show kicks off fast and hard with the title track of that record. And fast is the key word here, as Marty Balin in particular seems to be about half a step ahead of the rest of the band. The energy is undeniable, but Balin's rapid fire phrasing at times almost derails the song altogether. By the time of "Plastic Fantastic Lover," Balin still seems to be speeding his way through the vocals, occasionally punctuating them with screams. Thankfully, the band seems to have caught up to him by this time as the song takes on an almost punk-rock like pace.

That pace slows somewhat for "Good Shepherd," another track from Volunteers. Here, the traditional blues spiritual serves as a launch pad for some of those same, dizzying improvisational exchanges between Kaukonen and Casady that make Pointed Head such a great live document of this band. Curiously, Grace Slick's backing vocals as heard on the original version are left out entirely here.

On the rarely heard "You Wear Your Dresses Too Short," Balin calms down a bit and gets into a nice, soulful vocal groove. Kaukonen meanwhile rips off more of his trademark psychedelic staccato lead guitar runs as Casady's own bass runs circle round and round them. The quality of the playing here is nothing short of hypnotic, showcasing this band's two greatest musicians playing their asses off.

By the time of another rarely heard track, "Come Back Baby" it becomes clear the band has found it's groove and is well on it's way to one of those great nights that earned them their reputation as one of the great live acts of the era. Kaukonen, Casady and the late drummer Spencer Dryden click like a well oiled machine here, locking into one great improvisational exchange after another. This is simply great stuff.

On an extended version of their minor hit "The Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil," Casady takes off on a lengthy bass solo during the middle section, followed by another of Kaukonen's raga like psychedelic guitar solos. Then Grace Slick and Paul Kantner take over the spotlight for "White Rabbit" and "Crown For Creation" as the big guns are finally brought out for the home stretch.

As for the big close? A ten minute version of Fred Neil's "The Other Side Of This Life" turns into another of those lengthy jams showcasing the amazing interplay between Kaukonen and Casady. It's really no wonder these two guys eventually just went off and did their own thing with Hot Tuna, and remain on and off collaborators to this day. On live recordings like this one, and of course Bless It's Pointed Little Head, it's almost as though the two of them were joined at the musical hip.

Sweeping Up The Spotlight is part of Sony/BMG Legacy's celebration of the 40th anniversary of the music of 1967, the so-called Summer Of Love. This new live recording is a previously undiscovered treasure from one of that era's greatest bands. It hits your nearest record store May 15.

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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