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Ahuka's Choice: Volume 2

[Poster thumbnail] (38k JPEG)
This was the poster for the weekend (courtesy Scott Abbot).

Date: Friday and Saturday, 25/26 November 1966
Venue: Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco
Sound quality: B+ to A-
Tree Announcement: 12 August 1997
Requires C-100 cassette

Cassette Side 1

Friday, 25 November 1966

3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds
Other Side Of This Life
Tobacco Road
J.P.P. McStep B. Blues
She Has Funny Cars
Fat Angel
Plastic Fantastic Lover
In The Morning
Somebody To Love

Cassette Side 2

Saturday, 26 November 1966

Other Side Of This Life
Bringing Me Down
And I Like It
Go To Her
Fat Angel
3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds
White Rabbit

Filler (monaural)

Allison Steele interviews Grace Slick (probably syndicated; date unknown)
Remember: "Anytime you're relaxing with good friends and good talk ... you're in the Tea House."

Reviewed by Tim Lucas

Are you ready for some real history? Well, fasten your seatbelts and pull down your oxygen masks, because this is the stuff: Jefferson Airplane's first-known public performances of "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit."

Before we get into the concerts themselves, allow me to put these precious recordings into perspective with a little background information. Grace Slick, formerly of The Great Society, first stepped onstage with Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore on October 16. Two weeks later, after playing four straight nights at the Matrix to consolidate their sound, the band flew down to Los Angeles to record their second album, Surrealistic Pillow, at RCA Studios. The sessions lasted from October 31 to November 22, with one ten day interruption (November 4-14), which the band used to hang out with local musicians. When the album was in the can, the Airplane returned to their home turf for a weekend of concerts at Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium. It was a homecoming, an opportunity to celebrate, but also a chance to prepare themselves for the scrutiny they were about to face when they returned to Los Angeles on Monday -- for a week-long engagement at LA's make-or-break venue, the Whisky A-Go-Go.

Up to now, Jefferson Airplane had rarely played concerts outside the Bay Area, but with an album that was destined to change the face of contemporary music in the oven, all of that was about to change. This is the moment when the world got its first taste of what was to come. On two numbers, wisely saved for last on each show's playlist (what could have possibly followed them?), you can hear Grace step to the fore and guide the band toward a new identity.

The San Francisco Sound is born.

Side A (Friday, 25 November) finds the Airplane in an understandably joyous mood. There's a party atmosphere in the room projected by the band itself. After their turbine jet intro, they kick into a rocking, confident "3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds." Marty Balin is in jubilant voice, and when Grace sings with him, they have fused a third vocal personality not apparent in recordings made prior to their album sessions. Jorma Kaukonen's lead is smart and rascally, and played with a close eye on maintaining the rhythm set down by Spencer Dryden, Jack Casady and Paul Kantner. It's possible that the band never played this song with more enthusiasm than it's played here, and this version runs a couple of minutes longer than the studio take.

After Marty announces the next song, there is some confusion as Jack Casady -- always the silent man onstage -- says "Hold it, wait a minute!" and steps up to a microphone. "Jack's gonna sing!" someone jokes, to the merriment of the room. "We are to announce a very Happy Birthday to Judy Ellington," Jack says. "Let's hear it for Judy Ellington!"

The opening improvisation launch of "Other Side Of This Life" is simply amazing: each player, audited individually, seems to be creating a musical thread independent of the others, yet it all hangs together as an unmistakable melody. Marty's fierce tambourine rattling gives Spencer the freedom to depart from his standard rhythm part on occasion, playing some elegant, jazzy fills that make the performance an adventure on every level.

Marty announces "Tobacco Road" (warmly received by the audience) as "a song put out by a great singer, Lou Rawls," and proceeds to give evidence of an even greater singer: Marty Balin. Marty belts the hell out of this one, sounding like a man who wholly believes he can make good on the plans outlined in the song. Clearly, Balin has good reason to identify with the lyric under the circumstances of this show; he has just come back "home" after recording Surrealistic Pillow -- a project recorded "with the help and the Grace of God," and one that will allow him to get "very very rich I know and bring it back to Tobacco Road." For the first time, there is no imagination factored into his singing of this song; this is the performance of a man who has been there -- who is there -- and knows. Jack's diligent bass and Paul's artful rhythm give the song thrust, and Grace's background vocals shade Marty's lead with rich, almost gospel feeling. This is probably the song's definitive performance.

"Something a little softer," Marty introduces, "that was written by a friend of ours, Skip from Moby Grape. A song called J.P.P. McStep B. Blues." Recorded for Surrealistic Pillow but left off the final assembly, it's a livelier and less cloyingly sentimental song than Spence's "My Best Friend," but it suffers from a melodic monotony that wears quickly. The title gets a giggle from the audience, and the song is played prettily, with sweetly dovetailing vocals by Grace and Marty, and an unusually busy contribution from Jorma, whose flairful finger-picking gives the performance its greatest texture. This was probably the song's first live performance by the band, who retired it when it failed to make the album, played it again during a 1969 appearance at The Family Dog, and finally released the studio recording on their 1973 Early Flight compilation.

Before the band commences "She Has Funny Cars," Grace can be heard baiting Casady: "Play, Jack, please! Take a little solo, why don't you?" Grace introduces the song as "Funny Cars," and is corrected by Kantner, who playfully advises her to "enunciate, enunciate!" The performance sounds remarkably like the studio recording (which was reportedly laid down in only two takes), although the vocals are more upfront in the mix and easier to understand. Listen to how much Grace's confidence has grown in her short time in the band; she sings behind, with, at, and around Marty with unfailing style and cleverness.

There is a lengthy tune up as the band swaps instruments for Donovan's "Fat Angel." Jack comes in on gentle, fluttery rhythm, underlined by the sitar-like sighings of Kantner's Rickenbacker, apparently created by fading his volume in and out on every chord. Marty selects an inspired moment to add his bass to the exotic soundscape, and Grace sings an exquisite harmony on the chorus. Jorma's daredevil lead is promising, but this song had yet to be nailed as an improvisational forum by the band, and his gestures in that direction are foiled by Paul's early return on the vocal.

"Plastic Fantastic Lover" ("it's a love song to a television set," Paul explains) -- played on Surrealistic Pillow at a dirge-like pace -- can be found here already taking on a more upbeat, charismatic personality in live performance. Launched by Paul's raunchy guitar, Spencer's deliberately mechanical drumming has its pulse raised by Jack's funky bass and a delightfully sassy lead by Jorma. The song's percussion layer is also effectively augmented by a recurring "hiss" that is difficult to identify as Spencer's or Grace's contribution. (At one point, Grace unsuccessfully attempts to ingratiate her way into the vocals, proving that she remained onstage during this number for some purpose.)

"In The Morning," an electric blues number by Jorma, was also recorded during the Surrealistic Pillow sessions, but did not make the album. Jorma proves himself an accomplished vocalist in his own right, and he plays guitar with more feeling on this number than on any other track. His interplay with Jack Casady during the instrumental break is a potent glimpse of Hot Tuna in embryo.

Paul: "We'd like to finish now with Grace -- Amazing Grace -- singing Somebody To Love." Up to now, Grace Slick has shown herself capable of adding remarkably to the Airplane's sound in a second-class-citizen sort of way -- mostly lending a weirdly inverted masculine color to Marty's silky vocals, and using her own powerful pipes to simulate lead guitar sinuousness on a vocal plane -- but she's done nothing yet in concert to earn such a nickname. As fabulous as this show has been up to now, this next performance blows everything that has come before right off the stage. As played by The Great Society, "Somebody To Love" was folkier, more plaintive and introspective. Here, Jefferson Airplane unveils their version of the song: short, compact, and utterly galvanic. Jorma and Paul's double rhythm guitars snap like a rattlesnake attack (the impression completed by Marty's rattling tambourine), their sound driven inexorably forward by Jack's ebullient bass, Spencer's insolent drumming, and above all, a voice of glacial clarity -- imperious, divine, but also sympathetic. Nothing like this had ever been heard before. The audience greets the harbinger sound with enthusiasm, but there's a sense of numbness about the aftermath: the impact hasn't had a chance to sink in. It's too soon for anyone to know what just happened.

But thirty years later, we know: Jefferson Airplane has just left the hanger.

* * * *

The Saturday performance has a somewhat less casual atmosphere, but the performance is every bit as potent. As "Other Side Of This Life" gains instrumental altitude, you can hear Marty yelling "Yeah" over and over, hardly able to contain his enthusiasm. Once the vocals commence, Grace's background singing (which may have been slightly overmiked) seems to be at the very least equal to Marty's input, and at times, challenging it. Her confidence as a singer has gained enormously overnight, and this forces Marty to assert himself even more in an effort to hold down centerstage. The song's final instrumental break finds Jorma and Spencer jazzing along, while Jack's bass makes a surprising ascent to guide the band to a soft touchdown.

"Bringing Me Down" finds Marty overcompensating on vocals once again, with Grace's strong voice breathing down his neck. On the one hand, Marty's performance is amusing ("Hey, your love useta echooo / frumma feet to mah bu-raiiiiiiin!"), but on the other, this recording offers a glimpse of a songwriter tired of, and hence poking fun at, his own composition. Despite a fine band performance, highlighted by Jorma's bouncy noodling on guitar, Marty's humorous reading carries the song to the brink of self-parody. Although it's possible, even likely, that it was played at the next week's Whisky A-Go-Go engagements (for which no set lists have survived), this is the song's last known live performance.

Between songs, Jorma plays a short phrase from "Embryonic Journey," but doesn't carry it through. (Wish he had.)

"A song called This is My Life," Paul says, breaking the silence, using the alternate title for "And I Like It." Marty's vocal is heartfelt, full of aching that accurately belies the self-satisfaction of the lyric; accordingly, the song almost sounds like a prelude to a breakdown or a marriage proposal. Marty's delivery is sensitively underscored by Paul and Jorma's sweetly synchronized guitars, poured like icing over Jack's solid foundation. "Talk to the people," Marty mutters, giving Jorma the go-ahead for an equally sensitive lead solo. While the unusual, more raucous version heard on Ahuka's Choice Volume 1 may be preferable to some, this may well be the song's definitive traditional performance.

"And I Like It" is followed by a forceful, assertive "Go to Her." Instrumentally faultless, the performance is dominated by Jorma's wandering guitar lines and Marty's clattering tambourine, which support the lyric with elements of desperation and urgency, respectively. Grace's vocal ("I still remember the day when he first won my heart...") is a bit of a misfire, being sung harmonically. Her faux pas shows how conditioned she had been to singing backup in the band. Jorma's lead, played over the exciting pulsations of the rhythm section, is a searing sitar-inspired concoction that's as fine an illustration of "the San Francisco Sound" as one could wish to hear.

"Fat Angel" -- one of only three songs duplicated at the Friday and Saturday performances -- is once again preceded by lengthy tuning. Somewhat less fluidly played than at the Friday performance, it once again suffers -- in comparison to later performances -- from the band's strict adherence to the original song structure; Jorma's leads show an inclination toward lengthier improvisation, but his efforts are consistently discouraged by the return of Paul's vocal. Grace once again sings harmony, but the effect here is not as charming as the Side A performance; her voice has not yet learned how to blend with Kantner's. Her harmony part would be dropped from later performances, replaced for a time with Farfisa keyboards (eg., the 2/4/67 Fillmore performance). By the time of the 1968 performances heard on the Bless Its Pointed Little Head album, she had disappeared from the song altogether.

The only original Jefferson Airplane composition performed both nights at the Fillmore, "3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds" was also selected as the weekend opener, which leads one to suspect that the band felt it might be their best chance at a hit single from Surrealistic Pillow. (It didn't work out that way: RCA selected "My Best Friend" as the first single. Incredible, I know.) "3/5ths" had been played in concert since September, but even this great rendition -- with its stinging Kaukonen lead and early intimations of that towering Casady bass sound -- can't quite measure up to the giddy magic of the Side A performance. That such a hot performance can qualify as a second best only proves that Jefferson Airplane was the outstanding live act of their time.

"Today" had been in the band's live repertoire since July. Despite their ability to put it across as a wistful ballad, beautifully rendered by Kantner's painterly guitar, it always sounded a bit thin when played live. Without echo effects in his concert arsenal, Spencer's drums can't recapture the Spectoresque "wall of sound" of the studio version, and consequently his drumming sounds reticent, fearful of disrupting the tender chemistry of the piece, until the final "Please, please, listen to me" passage. Marty's voice is gorgeous here (though he can't quite reach down to the last note on "it all will come true"), and it's well complemented by Grace, who offers the perfect touch of requital to the lyric.

There seems to be some onstage confusion as to the last number, but Paul can be heard punning, "We're doing Welsh Rarebit." In the following minutes, the world heard for the first time Jack's bolero bass, Spencer's martial drums, Paul's snapping 12-string rhythm, Jorma's snaking guitar, and above all, the cool, commanding voice of Grace Slick. Grace starts out hesitantly, but can be heard gaining a quantum leap of confidence with every stanza. By the time she reaches "When the men on the chessboard," she has come fully into her own. The "Feed your head" climax is shattering. There had never been a song that ended this way before. You can hear the goosebumps rising in the audience ... you'll have them too, I guarantee it.

An added postscript to this magnificent tape is a three-minute, undated (circa early '70s) interview with Grace. Conducted by Allison Steele for the syndicated radio series "In the Tea House," the (presumably edited) talk focuses on Grace's influence by Oriental philosophy, culture and fashion "over the past seven months or so." She also mentions that her name means "honey" in Japanese. There is no mention of her affiliation with either Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship.

This review (c) 1997 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Technical Notes

At first we were going to use Scott's decent-sounding cassette of these shows to make our master. But when we realized that the tape might be missing a few songs, we started looking for a better source. A plea for help on 2400Fulton produced an amazing low-gen reel (quarter-track stereo @ 3 3/4 ips), with the complete sets for both shows and all stage banter intact. And the difference in sound quality was like night and day!

The reel was probably only two or three generations away from the source. Headphones revealed an amazing wealth of low-level information, including room ambience and subtle stage business missing from the cassette. There were occasional drop-outs, particularly in the left channel, but none of them serious enough to warrant special attention.

I decided to touch this tape as little as possible. Except for a conservative 15 dB of broadband noise reduction, what you hear is exactly what we found on the reel. No EQ tweaks at all. However, after a few listens it seemed to me that the tape was playing just a bit sharp. Using my digital piano as a reference, I cautiously tweaked the pitch until the opening chords of "Somebody To Love" rang exactly at F sharp minor (the key in which they always performed it). The difference was less than half a semitone, but that faint sense of "something wrong" was gone. A quick check of other songs confirmed the decision.

(A curious bit of trivia: The Airplane had two top ten hits, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love." The Grateful Dead had only one top ten hit, "Touch Of Grey." All were recorded in the key of F sharp minor.)

Side A originally ran a bit over 52 minutes, too long to reliably fit on some brands of C100 cassette. I studied the between-song pauses (which are surprisingly lengthy), and painstakingly removed two minutes of silence, buzzes, thuds and other uninteresting stage noise. I promise you'll never hear the edits. And the pauses are still too long.

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