Melodic Wanderings, Starting in Timbuktu
This was published in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, January 9, 2011:
As 2010 ended, Sony Music quietly released four albums of live Jefferson Airplane from 1966 and 1968. With their attentive audiences and casual stage patter, they’re all psychedelic time capsules: the band’s final set with its early singer Signe Anderson; Grace Slick’s debut show the next night; and two shows from October 1966 at Fillmore East, where, charmingly, the band introduces a song by Ms. Slick titled “White Rabbit” to a few perfunctory hand claps. The best of the four, despite the distorted recording, is “Return to the Matrix” (Collectors’ Choice/Sony) from 1968, with the band — now nationally known — in full cry at the club where it first played. The Airplane was a motley alliance: Ms. Slick’s cutting soprano, Marty Balin’s pop-soul tenor, Jorma Kaukonen’s fingerpicked blues and psychedelic lead guitar, Paul Kantner’s folky foundation, and the jazz-tinged rhythm section of Jack Casady’s bass and Spencer Dryden’s drums. That made for an improvisatory push and pull that made no two performances alike: volatile, messy and alive.