Tag Archives: Hot Tuna

Hash’s Faves: Jefferson Airplane

5 Aug

I just happened to stumble upon a couple of videos on YouTube of the Airplane’s performance at Woodstock in 1969 which blew me away, and got me to thinking in a more critical way about the whole band, not just Casady, who I’ve said before is one of my all-time favorite bassists.

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Signe Toly Anderson

The band’s history is pretty convoluted; formed in 1965 by singer Marty Balin and guitarist/vocalist Paul Kantner. Balin ran a seminal music club in San Francisco, the Matrix, and envisioned a house band for the club that would follow the lead of bands like the Byrds, melding folk music with rock and roll. Other members of what would become the Matrix’s house band included singer Signe Toly Anderson, acoustic bassist Bob Harvey, drummer Jerry Peloquin and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, a friend of Kantner’s who had just moved to the Bay area from Washington D.C. It was Jorma who suggested the band’s name. Peloquin quit over his disapproval of the band’s drug use, to be replaced by drummer Skip Spence, who would later form the band Moby Grape. Harvey’s bass playing wasn’t fitting the band’s vision, so Kaukonen summoned his Washington friend Casady to move out west.

The band started to gain popularity, playing some significant gigs and attracting attention from record companies; they cut their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, in 1966. Anderson became pregnant and quit the band, to be replaced by Grace Slick,who was in a band called The Great Society who had opened for the Airplane at a gig, Spence also quit, to be replaced by Spencer Dryden; this, in my opinion, was the classic band lineup. The band would go through several different metamorphoses, eventually becoming the Jefferson Starship, and later simply the Starship, and many of those bands were very good, but in my opinion none of them had the magic of the classic band.

Spencer Dryden

Spencer Dryden

Watching the Woodstock performances clarified some things for me, but I’ve always loved the band, and have often thought about what made them so special. The first thing that struck me about the Woodstock performances was Dryden’s short drum solo that introduces the song “3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds; I thought, “He’s really an r&b player!” I’d previously thought of him as being part of the band’s jazzy contingent; the band always seemed to contain several separate and distinct (and oftentimes overlapping) stylistic “cliques” – Casady and Dryden were the jazzers, Kaukonen and Casady the blues guys, Kantner and Slick the folkies, and Balin was the r&b guy. Now I think that Dryden belonged in both the jazz and r&b camp. Analogous with the Beatles, whose greatness (in my opinion, of course) resulted from the combination of personalities and musical tastes, the Airplane stumbled upon a magical combination whose whole was greater than its parts. Another thing that struck me about the Woodstock videos was the entire band’s willingness to improvise; even though they were obliged to play their greatest hits, they tried to stretch them (the performance of “Somebody To Love is especially adventurous). Casady is ferocious here; listen to what he does with the relatively simple 3-chord song Volunteers”.

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Paul Kantner

Kantner always seemed to be kind of the odd man out, musically, but I’m coming around to thinking that he was the glue that held the various factions and styles together. While his voice is an acquired taste, his vocal timbre and the harmonies that he sang were the perfect bridge between Balin’s soulful style and Slick’s near-operatic acrobatics. The Airplane’s 3-part harmonies were unique; most pop bands sing in more-or-less traditional “barbershop” harmony, but the Airplane’s harmonies tended to owe more to Gregorian chant and medieval music, and much of that came from Kantner; Balin sang harmonies that owed more to soul music by way of gospel, while Slick’s came out of folk music, which in turn sometimes originated in Irish and Scottish drone harmonies, enabling Kantner’s ideas to mesh better with Balin. As a rhythm guitar player, Kantner somehow manages to stay out of the way of Kaukonen and Casady, in much the same way the Bob Weir managed to stay out of Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh’sway in the Grateful Dead. I wish Balin hadn’t played that damned tambourine so much; in the Woodstock videos pianist Nicky Hopkinsis an almost invisible special guest (the camera only shows him briefly), contributing beautiful little lines here and there, as he was wont to do as a star sideman of that era.

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Jorma Kaukonen

I might mention here that the Airplane were also among the first rock musicians who I was aware of who loved to jam, and who didn’t consider their band a sacrosanct entity. Much like jazz players, they often welcomed other Bay area musicians onto the stage and into the recording studio, and I always eagerly scanned the liner notes of their albums to see who was guesting. The San Francisco musical community, which included the Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Crosby Stills and Nash, Janis Joplin, Santanaand other groups, as well as Los Angelenos the Byrds, was an incestuous one, in a mostly good way. One of my favorite albums is David Crosby’s _If I Could Only Remember My Name, which features a staggering number of players from all of those bands, and the first iteration of the Starship, a solo album by Kantner called Blows Against The Empire,_ also is a star-studded affair. Frank Zappa was also a sometime partner-in-crime.

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Grace Slick

One cannot ignore or fail to mention the effect that Slick’s sex appeal had; after all, even in these PC times you have to acknowledge that rock and roll is largely about sex, and Slick was the fantasy of countless hippies. The legend is that the band, who were supposed to close out the Saturday night show, didn’t go on until early Sunday morning; in the delay, evidently, many drugs were consumed, and Slick looks especially tripped out, but somehow still gorgeous. I was also impressed by how into the music she was (perhaps a byproduct of the chemicals), but in a non-show-bizzy way. They were hippies, and I love that she (as well as Joplin and Joni Mitchell and Mama Cass) didn’t seem to have a stage “show,” didn’t seem to have little bits that they’d do at preordained parts of songs every time they performed that song. Every time I see video of the band performing, at some point the camera lingers lovingly on Slick, and I can never help but think, “Good God, she’s beautiful!” Sorry, mea culpa.

Doors The Matrix

The Doors performing at The Matrix

By the time of the Woodstock performance, though, the wheels were already starting to come off. The internal personal dynamics of the band were always a bit fraught, complicated, it must be said, by sex. Again, they were hippies, and they were supposed to believe in freedom in all things, but human nature will have its way, and Slick was involved in relationships with not only Casady and Kantner but also (allegedly) with Jim Morrison,as well as many others, no doubt. Balin had withdrawn from much of the group’s business and musical decisions, and Kaukonen and Casady had started their side project, Hot Tuna, in part because the Airplane was working less, and they simply wanted to play. Jorma’s charmingly forlorn songThird Week In Chelsea, on the album Bark,chronicles his frustration with the band situation and forecasts its eventual demise; to her eternal credit, Slick agreed to sing harmony on it. Kantner would actually quit the band at one point, and Balin started playing rhythm guitar. By the time of Bark, Dryden had been replaced by Joey Covington, who had been playing with Hot Tuna. Violinist Papa John Creach became an official member of the band. Balin was not on the album, having quit the band, so although there are parts of the record that I like, this was no longer, for me, the Airplane.

Kantner and Slick were now parents; I do like that they still had enough of a sense of humor to name their 1973 non-Airplane/Starship record Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun; Kantner’s Teutonic temperament had always been one of the sources of contention within the band. The band officially ended in 1972, to eventually evolve into the various Starship iterations. They did some reunion gigs in 1989, and (I didn’t know this strange fact) both Kantner and Signe Anderson died on January 28, 2016. Dryden died in 2005.

The Starship continues, with Chicago-area singer Cathy Richardsonably filling Slick’s sandals. Hot Tuna continues to perform.

You can watch the Woodstock performances here:

Once you’re there, I think you’ll find several more videos from their Woodstock set.

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at steven.hashimoto@sbcglobal.net.

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Steve Hashimoto