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Music Review: Jefferson Airplane High Flying Bird: Live At The Monterey Festival

"When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy, the joy within you dies…Don't you want somebody to love, wouldn't you love somebody to love, don't you need somebody to love…" Jefferson Airplane; "Somebody to Love" 1967

I was only six in the "Summer of Love" of 1967, the year when the Monterey Pop Festival was held. So I can't really say that the music of groups like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Animals, or Jefferson Airplane were contemporary. But even though I came to them almost ten years after the fact in the mid seventies, they stilled seemed like a breath of fresh air compared with anything that was being listened to around me.

It was a couple of years before Punk made itself felt in Toronto, Ontario and the only music you could hear on the radio was either disco or over inflated progressive rock on the FM stations. So stumbling across an RCA double album release celebrating Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship was something of a revelation.

I'm sure I'd heard the seminal "White Rabbit" already, Grace Slick's strange take on the Alice In Wonderland story, but aside from that I knew almost nothing about this band from San Francesco. The songs on this album, "Wooden Ships", "Volunteers", and "Somebody To Love" to name a few, were only the tip of the psychedelic iceberg I began to discover.

Albums like Crown Of Creation and After Bathing At Baxter's revealed an exploration of sound and music that made the Beatles experiments on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band seem tame in comparison. Guitar notes were being bent and fed back in harmony with the vocals of Grace Slick and Marty Balin and creating a sound that both challenged the mind and haunted the soul.

Although there had been the occasional live track on albums released before, somehow I've managed to miss out on hearing almost any of their live recordings. They were left out of the original cut of the movie Woodstock so it was only last year when I borrowed the new Director's cut version that I saw and heard two tracks from their appearance there. I've never been able to sit through an entire showing of Altamont so I've yet to see Marty Balin get cold conked by the Hells Angel or their performance.
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So it's a great treat to discover that the Airplane's complete set from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was preserved. High Flying Bird: Live At The Monterey Festival is a digital re-mastering of the original eight track recording that's been released by the Belgian label Music Avenue. It marks the first time in over twenty years that you've been able to buy a recording of this music, and probably its first time on CD.

For all long time fans of the Airplane like me this is a real treat. The sound quality is far better than I had anticipated. I saw the movie made from the Monterey Festival years ago and the sound was horrible in places, so I had to admit I was worried. I need not have been. There are a couple of glitches – all of a sudden Marty Balin's vocals jump right to the front as if out of nowhere in one song, but aside from that there were no real glaring problems.

As for the performance itself, it's quintessential Jefferson Airplane. Slick's vocals go from being a strident challenge on "Somebody To Love" to hypnotic on "The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil". Marty Balin's vocals provide a calming counterpoint to her soaring sound; almost like her voice are two strands of a braid that wrap themselves around his waft that holds the framework in place.

There is no reason at all why these two voices should work together but that's part of the magic of Jefferson Airplane; the dichotomy and harmony that occurs simultaneously when the two of them are singing. It's not so much that two opposites are attracting, but rather two planets on different orbits running side by side and lighting up the sky together with moments of transcendental bliss.
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Beneath them run the electric chord of musical energy that's formed by the churning guitars and bass of Paul Katner, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady. Trying to hold it all together and keep them from taking off completely was Spencer Dryden on drums. Somehow or other these four provided the fuel that powered the two vocalists. The whole thing always seems to be within a whisper of collapsing into horrible chaotic noise, but somehow manages to stay aloft.

That's the second miracle of Jefferson Airplane, which you only really notice in live recordings like this one. They do hold it together to make a unified sound that wasn't matched then and hasn't been since by any other band. They were really a matter of the right people being in the right place together at the right time.

There are two songs on this live recording that emphasise what they were really capable of when they were flying at the right altitude. One, a song I wasn't familiar with before this disc, "Other Side Of This Life" and the second is "The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil" Both songs turn into psychedelic jams that in the hands of lesser bands would have turned into noise and confusion.

Instead The Airplane craft songs of intricate power and beauty out of improvisations that show not only an appreciation for the music, but an understanding of the concept one doesn't normally hear outside of Jazz. Instead of each player simply soloing, they are working together, and listening to each other, to make a unified statement with the music.

I'd always been a fan of the Airplane's but it wasn't until listening to this disc that I gained a real appreciation for their musicianship. For people who have always wondered what the fuss was about when people have talked about Jefferson Airplane, High Flying Bird: Live At The Monterey Festival should answer all your questions.

When the Airplane were introduced at the Festival as "a perfect example of what the world is coming to" it was obviously an over optimistic statement fuelled by the atmosphere and who knows what else. But when you think about it, we would probably be a lot better off if the world had gone that way. We didn't, but at least we have mementos of that time and that music preserved for us to listen to today. If some of us occasionally wonder what if, can you really blame us?

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