Jefferson Airplane: Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66 – We Have Ignition

Jefferson Airplane reaches altitude

Only weeks after making her debut as the new co-vocalist of the Jefferson Airplane (documented on Grace’s Debut), Grace Slick had lost the tentativeness that marked her initial appearance. In the month-and-a-half between performances, the band recorded Surrealistic Pillow (which included the Airplane studio debut of both Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden), and added mightily to their song catalog. Slick brought along the Great Society’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” each of which became Top 10 singles, and Balin, Kantner and Kaukonen added originals that make up the bulk of these two live sets. Altogether, seven of Surrealistic Pillow’s eleven tracks are included, and a few pieces left off the original album (Kaukonen’s “In the Morning” and Skip Spence’s “J.P.P. McStep Blues”) were still in the live set. Omitted is the show-stopping “Somebody to Love,” reported to have been played on both the 25th and 26th, but not included here.

For many in the audience, this was the first time they’d heard the band’s new material, as Surrealistic Pillow wasn’t released until the following February. The songs are still very fresh, and the band takes the opportunity to try out “Plastic Fantastic Lover” and “She Has Funny Cars” several times across the multiple sets. The tape opens with the former already in progress, and the interplay between Balin and Slick is electric. These mono recordings are more primitive than the stereo tapes from October’s transitional sets (Signe’s Farewell and Grace’s Debut), but Slick’s imaginative vocalizations still shine, and the band’s playing is tight and hard. Balin and Slick push each other to great heights, both on the band’s originals and on cover songs that had become regular features of the band’s set. Though they’d played it many times before, Balin and Slick wring everything they can out of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “High Flyin’ Bird,” spurring each other higher and higher.

The band lightens up for the sweet vocal interlude “My Best Friend.” Written by Skip Spence (who’d since moved on to Moby Grape), it sounds more like the Grape than the Airplane. The scant applause that greets “White Rabbit” gives a sense of just how new this material was to the audience, and though the band hadn’t fully discovered how to really kill with this song in live performance, the power of Slick’s vocal still makes an incredible impression. So too Balin’s searing lead on “It’s No Secret,” bolstered by terrific harmony singing from Slick. The early set ends with Kaukonen’s “She Has Funny Cars,” bringing to a close a performance that is notably short of jamming. The second set opens with extended treatments of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life,” each leaving room for instrumental play.

The rest of the first night’s late set includes several of the band’s regular covers (John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road” and a dreamy take on Donovan’s “Fat Angel”), repeats of Surrealistic Pillow album tracks, and the album outtakes “In the Morning” and “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues.” The first evening closes with Jorma Kaukonen singing lead on his original blues “In the Morning.” The second disc covers the band’s late set on Sunday, joining the set opener “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” in progress, repeating songs from the opening night in different order, adding the album outtakes “Let Me In” and “Today,” and stretching out exuberantly on an off-the-cuff encore of “The Other Side of Life.” The surprise encore also offers up the one-off instrumental “My Grandfather’s Clock.” The tape transcriptions leave the inter-song continuity in place, and though the band isn’t particularly chatty, the spaces help give a sense of the show’s pacing.

Airplane fans haven’t ever really been wanting for live material, with Bless Its Pointed Little Head and Thirty Seconds Over Winterland released during the years of the group’s ascension, and archival recordings Sweeping up the Spotlight Live at the Fillmore East, At Golden Gate Park, Last Flight released over the past few years, and numerous bootlegs circulating among collectors. But these pivotal performances (which have been bootlegged for years) show off the Airplane at the apex of their initial flight with Slick. The group would go on to record legendary studio albums that added fresh material to their live performances, but rarely would their sense of discovery as a live unit sound so new. Multiple versions of songs recorded across the three-day stand show how easily the band reacted to one another’s ideas, and how the band’s live act was something separate from their studio work. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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