Jefferson Evolution

Signe’s Farewell, Grace’s Debut, We Have Ignition, Return To The Matrix
Collectors’ Choice Music Live
Jefferson Evolution

If there had been a Top 40 of FM/underground radio in the mid/late ’60s (which, of course, would have defeated the whole purpose of FM/ underground), the Airplane would have dominated it, just as it defined the scene in and around San Francisco more than any of its contemporaries.

Marty Balin’s electrified- folkie recruits debuted in August ’65. By the end of the year, the sextet had signed a major label deal and begun work on its first album. Though Jefferson Airplane Takes Off would be overshadowed by its follow-up, Surrealistic Pillow, its version of folk-rock was more of a 50/50 blend. By the time of Pillow – and, indeed, by October ’66, when the band played the first of these live shows – folk had taken a backseat to rock.

Thankfully, someone had the foresight to record the weekend at the Fillmore when the Airplane’s original female singer, Signe Anderson, played her farewell gig and, on the next night, her replacement, Grace Slick, came onboard. Those single-CD releases are followed by two double-discs – Ignition showing how strongly Slick affected the group in a mere five weeks, 1968’s Matrix recorded at the club Balin co-owned.

The nine-minute jam that opens the Signe CD reveals Jorma Kaukonen’s status as one of the first and best psychedelic guitarists, freely mixing blues and Indian influences; meanwhile, Jack Casady steps up for an extroverted solo.

The following night may have been Slick’s debut, but Takes Off’s repertoire comprised the bulk of the two sets (combined onto a single CD). On Paul Kantner’s rocking “Let Me In” and a slowed-down version of Jim Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues” (mislabeled as Leiber & Stoller’s evergreen “Kansas City”) Kaukonen sounds like a crazed Buddy Guy (yes, the redundancy is intentional). Casady propels the former with glissandos, a la Bill Wyman on “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
By the time of the Ignition Fillmore dates in late November ’66, the group had recorded Pillow. Even folkier tunes sound harder-edged. One exception is a bit of ragtime fingerpicking courtesy of Jorma (most likely a time-filler, dubbed “My Grandfather’s Clock”) and foreshadowing Hot Tuna.

This was still Balin’s group, but a shift was already happening. By February ’68, when the Matrix date was recorded, “It’s No Secret” (one of Balin’s most majestic compositions) was accompanied by Slick’s over-the-top warbling, and Kantner was the one writing the singles – like “The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil,” which nearly dented the Top 40 a few months prior. And Kaukonen displayed his control of feedback, wah, and vibrato on an extended instrumental version of “Ice Cream Phoenix.”

Cudos to whoever had the foresight to record these previously unreleased shows at the time and the present-day mixers and masterers. The sound is excellent, but, more important, the performances outshine the group’s complete-set offering on the 40 Years On Woodstock box or Legacy’s Setlist sampler of live material from 1966-’73.

This article originally appeared in VG’s Feb. ’11 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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