New York Times Arts Section

Melodic Wanderings, Starting in Timbuktu

This was published in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, January 9, 2011:

Jefferson Airplane

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.