Music Review: Jefferson Airplane - 'Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition'
Back in the dark ages - the early 1970s when disco ruled the airwaves and before punk reminded us that rock and roll should make the establishment nervous not be part of it - I was your typical lost teenager looking for direction. As the present looked so dismal and I was lousy at looking into the future, the only viable alternative seemed to involve looking backwards for guidance. Reading about the previous decade with its protests against the war in Vietnam, the fight for Civil Rights and the music that accompanied it all made the 1960s seem a far more exciting time to be alive then the decade I was living through.
Needless to say the reality was lot different than any romantic notions my teenage self might have had. For while the lofty ideals of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were indeed worthy of being kept alive and venerated, a great deal of what I was first attracted to didn't bear up well under close scrutiny. Mind expanding drug trips could just as easily be heroin addiction and overdoses, the sexual revolution was just another excuse for men to exploit women and a great deal of the music was as manipulative and corporate as what was being put out in my own era. The more music I listened to the more I began to appreciate how the era's reputation for being a golden age of popular music was based on the achievements of a few gifted people and what I can only assume was a diminished capacity for critical evaluation caused by drug use.
However, while there were many groups which disappointed, one who lived up to their press clippings and whose reputation wasn't based on hazy memories was Jefferson Airplane. While psychedelic bands were just about as common as weeds in the Airplane's home town of San Francisco in the 1960s they stood out from the pack. Not only were they musically versatile, equally capable of burning the house down with acid rock as they were playing traditional blues numbers and ballads, what really caught my attention was the interplay of voices between their three main vocalists; Marty Balin, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner.
While Slick would swoop in and around her male counterparts like a circling bird of prey, it was when she stepped up to the microphone for her leads the true scope of her talent was revealed. It wasn't just that she was powerful, anybody can be loud, it was her ability to modulate her voice to suit the requirements of the material that was so impressive. Whether it was her in your face demanding of her audience whether they wanted somebody to love or not on "Somebody To Love" or the harmonies she wove with Balin and Kantner that could take you to a place few other female rock vocalists had even attempted before her, she was far different from any other female vocalist I had ever heard.
Yet Slick hadn't been there when the Airplane first took flight, not joining the band until the fall of 1966. Around a month after she joined, while they were still recording Surrealistic Pillow, the band introduced Slick to their audience over the course of two concerts at the end of November that year. Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition, being released on November 9/11 by Collectors Choice Music, brings those two concerts to CD for the first time and gives listeners a glimpse of what was to come with Slick as a member of the band. The concerts were a mix tunes taken from the soon to be released Surrealistic Pillow, covers and songs either from their first album or that would end up on other albums further down the road.
While the set list for both nights was pretty much identical, listening to how much the songs changed from performance to performance gives one a good idea of both their willingness and ability at improvisation. Whether it was just a matter of changing the guitar solos or taking a different approach to the song on a different night it's hard not to be impressed by the way they were will to tinker with new material in front of an audience. You get the idea that they were still finalizing their forthcoming album and taking this opportunity to try out ideas for each of the new songs before they came up with a final version for the record.
The other thing the recording does is show the different musical and intellectual interests at play in the group. Bass player Jack Casady and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen's interest in the blues, that would see them forming Hot Tuna as a side project in the future, comes through in the band's performance of Jorma's "In The Morning" and his passionate guitar work during the same. At the other end of the scale is Balin's biting and sarcastic "3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds" with his plea to "Do away with people wasting all of his precious time". Floating above and around all of them are Kantaner and Slick's early explorations of the fantastic and psychedelic as can be heard in the early versions of Slick's "White Rabbit" and the only known live recording of Kantner's "DCBA-25".
While these divergent interests were what made Jefferson Airplane so much more vital a band than the majority of the so called acid rock groups showing up in the Bay area, it was also the eventual reason for the demise of the original line up within a few years of this concert. However in 1966 what it made for was an exciting group who refused to be nailed down as one thing or another. Their cover of Fred Neil's "The Other Side of This Life" takes the one time folk song into territory its writer probably never imagined, while their version of Donavon's "Fat Angel" is remarkably sensitive to its origins.
Many times there are good reasons why previously unreleased material never sees the light of day, usually because the sound quality sucks. However that's not the case with Live At The Filmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition as the sound is remarkably clean. Far too often live recordings see some part of the mix washed out for one reason or another, but in this case none of the band's subtler nuances are lost in the recording process. In fact considering the sound systems of the day, I wouldn't be surprised if these discs aren't in some ways superior to what the audience at the concert heard.
More then forty years after this concert took place, and some thirty odd years after I first listened to Jefferson Airplane, their music remains as interesting and exciting as it was originally. While the group is still only in the earliest stages of their career when this disc was recorded, not only does their potential for greatness shine through, but they are already delivering performances far superior to what you'd expect from a group who had only finalized their line-up a month or two previously.
This recording is more than just a curiosity piece that will be of interest to no one but die hard Jefferson Airplane fans, its a great record that will give people an opportunity to experience one of the best bands to come out of the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. If you ever wondered what all the fuss was about when people talk about Jefferson Airplane, this will go a long way towards answering those questions.
(Article first published as Music Review: Jefferson Airplane - Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted November 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.