By Dana Turvey
In college, I had an English professor who aimed to inspire his sullen charges in the joys of poetry. To further this, he asked us each to type out the lyrics to a favorite song for a class discussion. Since I was 19 and socially awkward, I chose a scarce-played Jefferson Airplane tune titled “Silver Spoon”, mostly because it was edgy and different. Of all the songs offered by my classmates, mine was the only one too raw to discuss as a group – even in the late ‘70s.
That’s standard for lyrics by Jefferson Airplane and its rowdy offspring, Jefferson Starship – a bit honest, a skosh uncomfortable, wildly political, but when they nail it, it resonates. A recent gig by the current Jefferson Starship line-up offered a chance to revisit the Summer of Love.
Like the Fillmore, the South Shore Room at Harrah’s Tahoe has played host to its share of legends through the years. With Paul Kantner the only original musician from the early days of Airplane, he brings his share of celebrity and history to the current band; not simply as a musician and songwriter of some note, but also for his back-in-the-day relationship with Airplane/Starship vocalist, Grace Slick.
These days, at age 72, Kantner looks oddly like actor Geoffrey Rush – if Rush were to opt for tight fitting, turquoise tie-dye accented jeans and a handband for his work wear.
Still, this is the guy who wrote songs like “Volunteers” (with Marty Balin), “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?” and “Wooden Ships” (with David Crosby and Stephen Stills), and with Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall o’ Fame in 1996.
The rest of the current band line-up has longtime drum player, Donny Baldwin (an alum from early Starship and Elvin Bishop Band); David Freiberg (from Quicksilver Messenger Service) on guitar and vocals; Chris Smith playing piano and synth bass, plus Jude Gold, who has filled in on lead guitar since fall 2012. Rounding out the team, Cathy Richardson is the current vocalist representing Slick. Having played Janis Joplin offBroadway, Richardson has a big, strong voice, but these are some big go-go boots to fill.
I mean, we are talking Grace-frigging-Slick here, right?
For the night at Harrah’s, Mr. Kantner didn’t chat much, letting Richardson supply most of the patter as they romped through classic hits mixed with more obscure tunes. “If you’re wondering where our bass player is,” she quipped, “he’s in Chris’ right hand,” referring to Smith’s unique simultaneous instrument play.
With swirls of cosmic colored orbs playing on the backdrop, the band led with a couple lesser known tunes – why, is anyone’s guess. By the time they’d warmed-up, in the same South Shore Room where Mickey Thomas had often belted out those lyrics, Richardson did justice to her rendition of “Find Your Way Back.” Kantner – still ably picking through his guitar strings, opted out from some of the higher notes, but he and Freiberg blended well on the old standard, “Wooden Ships.”
After the audience’s enthusiasm over “White Rabbit,” Kantner did stop to jest, “What are you? A bunch of drug addicts up here in Tahoe?” After a mid-game self-penned solo by Gold, the show was back into familiar ‘80s territory with “Jane” which had Freiberg taking Thomas and Slick’s familiar spot on the vocals.
As the band headed into their wind-down, they went with a quirky track from the 2008 LP, Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, which blends tracks from John Lennon and Bob Marley. Then Kantner aptly reminded us to “remember on this Memorial weekend all our brothers and fathers and sisters” before launching into a rousing rendition of “Volunteers” as the final final.
A long-time (sadly former) Tahoe local, Sara Thomas, was married for some years to the band’s previous vocalist, Mickey Thomas. Yes, she’s that Sara from the namesake hit Starship song. During much of the band’s heyday, she was on the tour, spending a fair amount of time with both Kantner and Slick.
She recalls, “When I joined the tour, I always brought books with me and I bonded a bit with both Paul and Grace because we all read so much. Once, I was backstage at a concert and Grace asked me why I was back there reading. I told her that I can only hear “Jane” so many times and this book was really good! I remember I was reading “The Tao of Physics” which Paul also read. They’re both quite intellectual.”
And my college project? Thanks to another smart man, an after-class chat, some typical Airplane lyrics showcasing the alluring vocal roar of Slick and Kantner, I got an A.
But I still miss Grace.
2. She has Funny Cars
3. Find Your Way Back
4. Let’s Get Together
5. Count On Me
6. Wooden Ships
7. White Rabbit
8. Solo by Jude Gold
9. Crown of Creation
10. drat – missed it!
13. Fresh Air
14. missed that too
15. Somebody to Love
16. Imagine Redemption