Put The Boot In: Jefferson Airplane ‘Before the Empire Falls’ May 7, 1969 Golden Gate Park

by | Jan 30, 2016 | 0 comments


 
Jamming in the rock room today in tribute to
guitarist/songwriter Paul Kantner is a soundboard recording of Jefferson
Airplane’s original line up live in Golden Gate Park on May 7, 1969 on a double
bill with brothers in cahoots the Grateful Dead.  The performance has been released in many
different guises both officially and unofficially but the version I am enjoying
today comes from a bootleg CD with a purported lineage of being one cassette
tape removed from the master. The concert has its moment’s magic but also acts
as a nicely captured historical document of a fertile and turbulent era of rock
history. The band feels and plays way laid back to the point of almost tipping
over while performing for their tribe and the show contains a number of yet to
be released songs and one premier.
Fred Neil’s ‘Other Side of This Life’ opens the show with a
light bubbling introduction that slowly coagulates into a churning palpitation
as the band falls into place. The well mixed soundboard features Jack Casady’s
heavy Alembic thump and a pleasing balance that shows everyone in the sonic
spectrum. ‘Other Side of this Life’ lifts the curtain on the performance and
starts the concert ablaze. Kaukonen’s first solo takes a second to get started
before it ignites and explodes into the second set of verses where the Airplane
choir is in full throat and roars out the ropy melody. The outdoor atmosphere
can be felt on the recording through Jorma’s quivering distortion and the
natural roominess expressed on the recording. For Kaukonen’s second solo he
catches a thread on a nail and lightly pulls unraveling and initiating Dryden’s
drums to hit on the head of a railroad rhythm. Kantner then begins to thrash
metallic scraps from his Rickenbacker assisting the song in reaching a
thrilling and turbulent climax.
A swampy ‘Somebody to Love’ follows and begins sounding like
a ‘Cream’ song. Slow and stony Grace begins oozing a horny vocal vibe while the
band stumbles heroically through the changes. Admittedly, there are some issues
here with Jorma sounding like he is having a hard time staying in tune. Finally
the vocalists get the energy up in enough time for Kaukonen to take a vibrato
but slightly disoriented solo spot.
Grace makes a comment about getting the ‘gremlins away from
the tuning pegs’ while Kantner strums the opening chords of ‘The Farm’.  This is a premier performance for the song and
I believe one of only a handful of renditions. Fitting for the spring of 1969
San Francisco environment, Kantner and Slick join forces with Dryden banging on
drums for the lilting sing along. Grace scats along with Paul’s endearing
deadpan deliveries eliciting the spacious green field melody. A super rare
performance and classic cut.
‘Somebody got hit with a chain’, looking for a doctor’,
Grace Slick announces from the stage before the next number, an eerie
foreshadowing of Altamont which was half a year away.  ‘Greasy Heart’ slithers out slicked up and
glissades from the speakers on Kaukonen’s milky wah-wah pumping. One of Slick’s
finest Airplane tracks in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion this version switches
tempo more than a couple times but does settle into a respectable version spotlighting
some soaring Slick hollars’. Dripping with sensual psychedelia ‘Greasy Heart’
pumps its lusty rhythms into the May afternoon air.

Typical of the outdoor shows of the era, the band deal with
some technical issues but kees things light and play their way proudly through
any issues with aplomb. Kantner plays the chiming introduction of ‘Good
Shepherd’ soon after ‘Greasy Heart’s’ conclusion.  In spite of a tentative beginning ‘Good
Shepard’ locks hands by the mid song changes and suddenly becomes a stormy folk
march with Jorma and Jack getting especially spunky. What makes this version
special is that Grace is the lead vocalist and not Jorma who would be on the
record.  Grace makes the comment that she
likes the song at its conclusion and asks Jorma if he wrote it or if it was a
traditional song. The song is a traditional while being arranged by Jorma into
the psychedelic folk ballad disseminated by the Airplane.
A sloppy good ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ follows with Jorma
and Jack almost drowning Balin’s screaming vocals.  Dryden slams his drums into submission in a
vain effort to keep up with Kaukonen’s resounding string explorations. The
groove and Jorma’a endless riffing help to institute a euphoric and dizzying
version. A high speed and high intensity ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ is always a
highlight of Airplane performances. 
Jorma gets an additional spotlight as the band begins ‘Uncle
Sam Blues’, a straight blues number turned into a howling protest against war.
A highlight of their 1969 Woodstock performance and other concerts of the era
here it is probably the strongest track of the concert thus far. Smoky and
contemplative Kaukonen lays it down like silly string, lending the shady changes
a day glow accent. His riffs range from watery to over driven to softly muted
games of hopscotch across the neck. His last solo is dramatic while melodic and
worthy of close inspection.  Stinging
licks, weedy but fitting vocals and heavy accompaniment by the rhythm section
make this song a notable performance for repeated jamming.
Another song from the yet to be released Volunteers album follows and this time
it’s a funky rendition of the title track. 
A celebratory reading follows with the three vocalists weaving a stellar
blend. The performance matched with the upcoming ‘White Rabbit’ display both
‘big’ Airplane numbers, one well known and one about to be. Kantner’s signature
guitar changes are drizzled with sticky Kaukonen licks as the group
collaborates on a tasty early version of a classic number. Acid and incense,
music and madness this particular song at this specific concert is soaked in
the 1960’s and emanates its elements from the aged magnetic tape. 
The expected ‘White Rabbit’ follows in a version commensurate
with other versions and with the intensity of the concert thus far.  Grace dedicates the song to a friend in the
audience. Nothing to take away from the version, it is just one of many
available for those who look.
The Bathing at Baxter’s
song suite ‘Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon’ follows with an unfortunate
cut right when the winds of discovery start to take hold. What is available is a
solid version typical of the era but as previously stated missing the creamy
center. The verses are intact.
The glistening centerpiece of the performance and the
musical mine where all the valuables are located comes in the aptly titled,
‘Jam In the Key of D’. The jam crystallizes from silence and sneaks in concealed
in shadow. Constructed of sturdy Jack Casady chording the jam emerges from the
mist similarly to a Grateful Dead ‘Dark Star’ jam of the same vintage that
would reveal itself from a molecular space. Jorma hits on his stock ‘curly q’
lick which starts to pay dividends as Casady expands his pallet and Kaukonen
reaches for alternate expressions. Jorma switches to a softly muted tone which
exposes a turnaround in the jam where Dryden begins to pick up the tempo. Jorma
attempts to hypnotize himself before letting a violet drone of feedback stretch
into the horizon, becoming another theme to peek around the corner at. 
Casady squawks loudly with a series of fat rolls of sound to
which Jorma answers with succinct chirps. The groove morphs again while Kantner
is absent and the song begins to feel like a embryonic ‘Hot Tuna’ track.
Kaukonen and Dryden enter into a rolling call and response to which Casady
keeps the lines of communication open. Jorma stirs the pot with distorted and
static chords that increase the tension and bring the jam to the top of another
flight of steps. The drums then falls away as Jorma reverberates with a elastically
repetitive lick that folds over on itself. The air receives an electric charge and the sound gains form. Casady winds around the post Jorma
has planted as Dryden returns and the creation rises again. As the beautiful
slice of improve unique to this day in Golden Gate and painted in musical watercolors
on the spot concludes, chuckles can be discerned from the stage and then the
available tape cuts. Believed to follow but not available on the circulating
tape are performances of ‘3/5’s of a Mile in Ten Seconds’ and what would be the
first performance of ‘Mexico’. Unfortunately these songs are unavailable on my
recording.
While maybe not at the performance level of the circulating October
shows from Winterland, the May 7, 1969 Golden Gate Park of Jefferson Airplane
is a crispy soundboard recording of a vital time in San Francisco rock and for
the original line up of the band. Within the year the line up would change and
soon after Jefferson Airplane would be no more. But for a few unique years the
band (along with the Grateful Dead) were the epitome of the mysterious San
Francisco sound and the pilots of psychedelic rock. Throw on a version of this
recording for another immortalized musical moment filled with performance
magic.

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