Jefferson Airplane | Sweeping Up the Spotlight, Live at the Fillmore East, 1969 (Legacy)

jefferson-airplaneThe album is a celebration of one of the greatest American rock bands playing at one of the greatest venues in America.

 

 

 

 

Forty years ago this summer, a new culture-a counterculture-was burgeoning in San Francisco, the Mecca of the new psychedelic music scene. Two key events leading up to that legendary 1967 "Summer of Love" were the January 14 "Human Be-In" in Golden Gate Park, where Jefferson Airplane headlined with fellow acid-rock pioneers The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service; and the February release of Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, the first commercially successful psychedelic rock album from a San Francisco band. Surrealistic Pillow hit #3 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart, driven by hit tracks "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love," which became anthems of that summer.

In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the "Summer of Love," the band has released Sweeping the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969, featuring the classic Airplane lineup of Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden and "Acid Queen" Grace Slick playing previously unreleased live tracks. The album is a celebration of one of the greatest American rock bands playing at one of the greatest venues in America.

Along with its sister establishment, the Fillmore West in San Francisco (still in existence), the Fillmore East was rock promoter Bill Graham's base in New York's East Village. Known as "The Church of Rock and Roll," in the three years it was open, the Fillmore East hosted some of the biggest bands of the era including: The Grateful Dead, The Who, The Allman Brothers Band, Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. "To play the Fillmore East was more significant than Carnegie Hall for rock bands like us," writes Kaukonen in the album's liner notes.

Jefferson Airplane performed six shows at the historic venue before its closing in 1971, including these performances, recorded on November 28 and 29, 1969, at the height of the band's popularity, and just eleven days after my own birth. Perhaps because of that proximity, I feel this live album represents a moment in history – one of great cultural significance.

Just a month after playing this show, the band shared the bill at the infamous Rolling Stones concert at California's Altamont Speedway, where violence erupted between audience members and Hells Angels who had been hired as show security, leaving one dead. At the time, more than 40,000 Americans had been killed in the Vietnam War.

It is fitting that Jefferson Airplane opens the show with their most political song, the Vietnam War protesting "Volunteers" from the 1969 album of the same title. With its call-to-action lyrics, "Got a revolution, Got to revolution," the song became an anthem for a generation disillusioned with its government for involvement in a war that didn't seem to make sense (hmmm . . . sound familiar?). The power behind their performance and the surprisingly clear sound quality of this recording captures the true spirit of a legendary band and the emotion of this politically-charged time period.

I will forewarn, this album can, at times, be somewhat difficult to listen to for those who are not true fans of the live, psychedelic rock show. The vocals are particularly rough on such songs as "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds," "Won't You Try," and "The Ballad of You & Me and Pooneil" (although Kaukonen's guitar and Casady's bass sound so incredible, it makes up for it). There are times that the band strays a bit off course as well, but that's to be expected considering the sort of journey of discovery they were on. Let's just say that it helps to be in the right frame of mind to truly enjoy and appreciate this album.

"When we played this show, I was twenty-eight years old," writes Kaukonen. "At the time I don't think I realized how blessed I was to be locked in step with this disparate group. As I listen to the cuts today, some of it is rough, but there is beauty and strength in the roughness."

The album's highlights include "Uncle Sam Blues," a tripped-out blues jam, and the ten-minute long "The Other Side of This Life," on which Kaukonen's guitar is nothing short of extraordinary.

And then, of course, there is "White Rabbit," the Airplane's mega-hit that conjures drug allegories from Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland. Slick's vocals on this live version are a bit more abrupt and the tempo is slightly more upbeat than the studio recording, but the haunting guitar riffs and final, piercing note are worth the price of admission (which, according to the ticket-stub photo in the cover art, was $5.50 in 1969).

If you have no patience for the long, drawn-out, LSD-fueled jam, then this probably isn't the album for you. But if the "Summer of Love" means something more to you than that one time at band camp, it is a relic from a time when a musical and cultural revolution was beginning. "You need to take this trip with us," Kaukonen writes. I say, Get on the bus.  B+ | Amy Burger

 

RIYL: The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, New Riders of the Purple Sage

 

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