By John Sullivan
Ongoing calls to protest the war in Vietnam were visibly present during the decade’s most well-known outdoor music festivals — Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont. Among all the influential musical acts that were able to participate, only one rock band performed at all three historic rock music events.
That band was Jefferson Airplane, the psychedelic, San Francisco-based counterculture rockers that garnered widespread appeal through their unusual song arrangements, vibrant lyrics and distinctive personalities in both studio recordings and live performances.
Forty years later, one of Airplane’s co-founders Paul Kantner is continuing that musical journey with the longtime spin-off band Jefferson Starship and its latest release, Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty — a remarkable selection of protest and traditional cover songs. And with America contending with two overseas wars, a domestic financial restructuring and a heated Presidential election campaign, many classic rock fans will find this CD more than timely.
The new project, officially released in September 2008 by The Lab Records, contains 18 songs (along with one bonus ‘hidden’ track) from such diverse music legends as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, Bob Marley and Richard Thompson, to name a few. But, it is the powerful influence of folk-music legends The Weavers (with 89-year-old founding member Pete Seeger still performing their songs) that remain Kantner’s biggest musical influence.
“Oh, The Weavers are the number one band in my life,” said Kantner. “It is the reason I first got into a band and how I became socially responsible — as well as having a good time!”
That reason is clearly evident, as Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty kicks off with “Wasn’t That A Time,” a tune written by Weavers members Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman that sets the tone for this effort.
As the familiar beginning of the Airplane classic song “Volunteers” is heard, the tune quickly changes gears as the powerful Weavers’ lyrics of “Wasn’t that a time, wasn’t that a time? / A time to try the soul of men / Wasn’t that a terrible time?” is driven behind Cathy Richardson’s stirring vocals.
At 67 years of age, the energetic Kantner miraculously survived the rollercoaster rock and roll business and has remained active in the ever-changing music industry, launching sporadic tours while the resurging interest among aging Baby Boomers (and their offspring) continues.
As a member of a legendary ’60s rock band and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, Kantner is wholeheartedly convinced that there will always be a place for him and Jefferson Starship for these types of musical explorations.
“With this new record, we have had a positive, pleasant response,” said Kantner. “In the past, we have had varying degrees of success with our projects. But, I think the thing that always keeps me going is the mystery of music.” Stopping for a moment, Kantner laughs, saying, “That and ‘what else am I going to do?’”
As a collection of tunes by accomplished songwriters around the world, the new Jefferson Starship CD also has an interesting educational component — courtesy of the exquisitely detailed liner notes that explain why certain songs were selected.
One learns, for example, that the traditional “Follow the Drinking Gourd” song (sung by Kantner, David Freiberg and Ms. Richardson) was once used by slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad and that it included coded references. And Carlos Mejia-Godoy’s and Tomás Borge’s tune, “Commandante Carlos Fonseca,” performed as a three-piece performance by Kantner, vocalist Diana Mangano and bassist/pianist Chris Smith, has some chilling commentary that reads: “Borge wrote the lyrics to ‘Fonseca’ while hallucinating from hunger and abuse in Somoza’s jail.”
One challenge in bringing such a wide variety of artists’ songs under one roof is that previous acts have already tackled many of these tunes with varying degrees of success. For the most part, the eclectic, acoustic-driven arrangements by musicians/co-producers Kantner, Freiberg and Michael Gaiman works from start to finish, giving listeners a very distinctive, yet unifying, walk through a half-century’s worth of music.
Having been through countless bands, lineups and studio folks over four decades, Jefferson Starship’s ringleader is very grateful to all the participants that managed to bring this long-overdue project to its completion.
“I’ve known David forever, before he went on to form Quicksilver Messenger Service and even before we formed Airplane,” said Kantner, talking about Freiberg, “and he’s such a great vocalist. And after seeing Cathy Richardson in ‘Love, Janis,’ a play about the life of Janis Joplin, I knew she would be great for us. And Michael Gaiman keeps coming up with ideas all the time.”
Any Jefferson devotee will, of course, enjoy any appearance from an Airplane performer. Pioneering Airplane bassist Jack Casady (who’s often busy with another successful Airplane offshoot band, Hot Tuna, which includes Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen) appears on “Maybe For You’ alongside Airplane co-vocalist and Jefferson Starship performer Marty Balin. A mystery track has also been added into the mix; known as “Surprise,” it features none other than the enigmatic Jefferson vocalist Grace Slick performing an acoustic duet with Jack Traylor.
Hard-core music fans of the band will also recognize familiar musicians, such as guitarist Mark “Slick” Aguilar, vocalist Darby Gould, mandolinist David Grisman, pedal steel guitarist Barry Sless, violinist David LaFlamme and drummer Prairie Prince, among others.
Regarding the CD’s highlights, there are several worth exploring. The stirring versions of Dino Valenti’s “Cowboy on the Run” and Brendan Behan’s “Royal Canal” (The Auld Triangle) capture the project’s spirit, while the band’s performances on Richard Thompson’s “Genesis Hall” and Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” are true standouts. The creativity carries on with “Imagine Redemption,” a Michael Gaiman songwriting idea that brings together elements from John Lennon’s post-Beatles output and reggae icon Bob Marley in one song.
As for “On The Threshold Of Fire,” a Kantner original culled from three other compositions of his, the rock star’s musical talents extends to his family once again — this time featuring Alexander Kantner, Paul’s son, on bass guitar.
Like other rockers that have carried artistic ideas over extended periods of time (such as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson taking 38 years to complete Smile), the Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty undertaking had initially come from a concept that Kantner and manager Gaiman wanted to tackle for many years. Eventually entitled “The Cuba Project,” it was supposed to be a collection of protest songs that would be performed and recorded in Cuba. But, Kantner was unable to get things moving the way he initially wanted, and the project had to be shelved.
“We had tried a couple of times earlier to get this off the ground,” said Kantner. “But then the State Department and others killed that idea. In the old days, I guess we would have just gotten in a couple of boats with the instruments and gone over there anyway without asking anyone for permission!”
The final cuts that actually made it onto the new record were a gathering of tunes associated from various stages in Jefferson Starship’s history. But the recording and mixing of the project itself at Renegade Studios (which was once the Grateful Dead’s rehearsal space) ended up being completed in just four weeks.
One would surmise that time should be a major factor with any veteran rock band’s desire to release a challenging product in a very fickle music environment. Kantner’s relaxed philosophy towards life while taking on such complicated endeavors, however, is contrary to what some people might expect from a seasoned rocker.
“I’m tired of trying to write a five-year music plan,” said Kantner. “It’s more about being flexible, which can drive you just as well. But let me explain what I mean in three words: white water rafting. You just get in the boat, throw in what you need, and let the river take on your journey.”
Jefferson Starship has been supporting its latest effort on a multi-city tour. But, it has kept up with the information superhighway as well, launching a MySpace Web site with several streaming tracks and a detailed history about the project. The real value, however, still remains with the physical CD, as its engaging liner notes, the simple but stark black disc, and the Revolutionary War cover art is reminiscent of what many ’60s bands like Jefferson would release during their vintage “cardboard and vinyl” album days.
Kantner, however, is quick to point out that the timing of the release during the 2008 Presidential election is only coincidental, as the project had suffered from past delays. On the band’s MySpace page, Kantner elaborates: “The current climate certainly agrees with us, but we’re always moved more by the band’s own compass than anything external. This is the kind of music we loved and were doing 40 years ago about the same time we discovered LSD and electric guitars… needless to say, we got distracted.”
What does seem to be most essential to Kantner and Jefferson Starship is the emotional impact of what you hear and where the timeless songs can take you.
“When we first did Bob Dylan’s great song ‘Chimes of Freedom,’ it was a stripped-down version, and it brought a tear to my eye,” said Kantner. “But when we were going to add more into the song, it didn’t bring a tear to my eye and went back to the original idea. And it is that quality of the immeasurable that makes us very emotional — why do these chords and these notes come together to make an emotional response?”
Looking back at the band’s extensive discography, there have been numerous lineups associated with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship bands. But you only have to listen to the current rock radio stations to know that the band’s well-known three-vocal sound does not exist among the current generation of rock stars.
However, part of Kantner’s musical DNA, forever influenced by The Weavers and their legendary lone female singer Ronnie Gilbert, guarantees that the strong, reverberating voices that have always been part of the band’s legacy will continue to mesmerize their audiences far and wide.
“We were recently invited to perform at a festival in Scotland,” said Kantner, “and right after our set, a group of teenagers came up to us and said, ‘How did you do that?’ — meaning how did we get our sound like that. They loved it.”
As for Kantner’s thoughts on upcoming bands amid today’s competitive music scene, he doesn’t understand how any artist can squeeze out a living as the number of rock bands have grown dramatically, technology gives back so little money for their efforts, and there are no more retail stores for musicians to “hang out and learn by going through the record bins.”
“When we first started out in the ’60s,” said Kantner, “there were only a handful of bands in all of San Francisco. But, for Airplane, it wasn’t just one thing that happened to us. There was a total outbreak, and it exploded with music as we wandered blithely after the JFK assassination and propelled us into that period and opened that door that we never closed again. It was a special time — after the pill and before the disease.”
The busy veteran rocker performs around the globe when it makes sense. But, Kantner has maintained his roots in the San Francisco area, choosing to remain in the West Coast city that, following countless years of Catholic education, launched his unconventional musical career.
“Living here, I was able to follow my own path and values and was able to get away with an amazing amount of shit,” says Kantner. “So if you want to go crazy, just come to San Francisco. It’s still totally open to the unexpected.”
With the current Jefferson Starship tour continuing on through the end of the year,
many venerated ’60s rockers such as Kantner are approaching their ’70s. And with the last Jefferson Airplane reunion occurring almost two decades ago, is there a remote possibility that the Airplane will reunite one more time in the near future?
“Don’t know,” said Kantner. “I just don’t have the answer to that. I do hear from Jack and Jorma from time to time, but they get busy with Hot Tuna and other things. My daughter China and I have been trying to get Grace to sing again, but she’s involved with her paintings. And Marty does sing with us at some shows. But never say never.”