Jefferson Airplane
Thirty Seconds Over Winterland


It's really funny to think about the relevance for today's listeners of all those "West Coast bands", more than forty (!) years after the fact, when even a relatively recent phenomenon such as (so-called) Grunge has already been consigned to the fuzzy fog of a nebulous "past".

By all accounts quite weak live, The Byrds and The Buffalo Springfield nonetheless managed to create a sound that was quite fresh and personal, well represented by a (small) series of studio albums (featuring more than a few very beautiful songs) that can perfectly function as perennial archetypes for those who are interested enough to look in the proper direction.

The opposite is true of The Grateful Dead, a fantastic (and unreliable) group of changing personalities, great live but often incapable of putting some of that spirit into their songs. Having become legends first, then a cultural phenomenon that's nowadays (at least) as American as surf or apple pie, today the group lives in the endless parade of live recordings that appear to embody the "spirit of the Web".

In many ways the least "Californian" of all the California bands, The Doors are often perceived - for well-known reasons that I won't get into here - as being beyond any possibility of any rational discourse whatsoever. We'll always have those immaculate six studio albums, though, and the compendium of Absolutely Live (also, three great instrumentalists).

Some of the press have long tried to declare Arthur Lee and his group, Love, as being one of the greats, with not-so-convincing results, even when it comes to the "myth" dimension (and if it's the "lack of commercial success" category we are talking about, when it comes to creativity and innovative spirit, Love were definitely not in the same league as Joseph Byrd's United States Of America). Meanwhile, one of the best US groups from the 60s - creative, and (maybe their biggest sin?) quite subtle, Spirit, still awaits a proper reappraisal.

Creedence Clearwater Revival are really a subterranean archetype of "modern American popular music". A Californian group whose geographical coordinates lead more in the general direction of Bakersfield than Los Angeles or San Francisco, under an apparent patina of uniformity (also known as "style"), Creedence managed to feature in their best albums (there are four of them, all conceived and recorded in the space of less than two years) a great variety of genres. And let's not forget the "political" attitude embedded in (group leader and only composer) John Fogerty's narrative: a "liberal" outlook that's quite near to the "California spirit" of the time, while at the same time being the nearest thing to an authentic "working class" dimension US rock music (be it Californian, or otherwise) has produced.

And sure is fun thinking about how the passing of time has made it almost impossible to perceive all those differences that once accounted for a lot. And sure is strange to see the unconditioned honors going to somebody like Johnny Cash, who once was seen as a symbol of all that was reactionary and (dunno whether this word still makes sense today) Nixon-like in 60s America, the myth of the "outlaw" going hand-in-hand with a sense of the individual that's completely at odds with 60s Californian collectivism.

(There are not many today who would believe that Bob Dylan participation to Johnny Cash's TV show, which is seen today as tangible proof that the host didn't discriminate hippies and the like, was at the time considered to be a tangible sign of Dylan having gone crazy.)

That those cultural lines were seen as something quite serious at the time is easily demonstrated by the ambivalent attitude many rock musicians demonstrated when it came to "country" music, since it was not only the notes that were brought into question. (Those patient enough to give old records a few spins are invited to listen to the performing attitude when it came to country material - an attitude which can only be described as being ambivalent, to say the least - that an old fan of Black Music such as Mick Jagger chose when singing the group's most "countrified" songs - for instance, check the verses in Dead Flowers, off Sticky Fingers.)

One of the main characters of the "California scene" of the 60s, The Jefferson Airplane still suffer from a perennial undervaluation. Which is quite strange, if one only considers those excellent studio albums (good songs, personal sound) recorded by the group, ably assisted by producer Al Schmitt, who managed to turn those disparate personalities into a coherent whole; also their great value as a live group, a quality that was definitely not that common in those days, and which is well represented by the album Bless Its Pointed Little Head; their two big hits, with White Rabbit as a (counter)cultural icon; a female figure, Grace Slick, as the group's singer and composer, the latter being an uncommon trait at the time; a guitar player, Jorma Kaukonen, who literally invented a style; and last but definitely not least, a bass player, Jack Casady, whose daring work when it comes to harmony still sounds daring today, and whose individual timbre can still be regarded as one of the most original in the history of rock music.

The group also had a fine vocal blend, with singers Marty Balin and Paul Kantner as main vocalists together with Slick and Kaukonen. And while many of their songs got their inspiration from folk and blues tradition, they mostly avoided sounding derivative with their use of daring timbral combinations and effects. Nice lyrics, too, with those penned by Kantner as proof of the "oral journalism" function of protest folk, while those penned by Kaukonen showed the dimension of personal experience painted with the colours of the parable and the allegory so typical of the blues. While those penned by Grace Slick were rich with cynicism and with an adult realism that was definitely not so common at the time.

It was at the end of the 60s that Marty Balin, the group front-man live, decided to quit The Jefferson Airplane. Not long before him, the group drummer, Spencer Dryden, also quit: his dry, jazz-like groove, was maybe considered as being a bit too weak in an age when drummers sounded increasingly big and fat; but he was the element that most gave much-needed agility to a group that often run the risk of sounding too crowded. It was at this point that Kaukonen and Casady gave birth to a variable line-up called Hot Tuna, with the goal of entering the "jam" rock-blues scene. Having taken aboard drummer Joey Covington and, together with Hot Tuna, fiddle player Papa John Creach (a true character), Jefferson Airplane released two fine albums, Bark and Long John Silver, and did what was to be their last tour. Meanwhile, famous and reliable John Barbata had replaced Covington.

The group members had already gone their separate ways when, in 1973, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, a coincise live album recorded during the previous tour from Summer '72, was released. I hope my memory serves when I say that at the time of the original release the album was regarded as being "good, not great". But I suspect this was more a sign of many changes in the music of the time - especially in Europe - than the album being wanting. Some audio specimens available today tell of a group that could play well and with gusto mostly material taken from those two recent albums, plus a few tracks off the Hot Tuna book. And while there's something missing in the coherence department, the final result is good. The best thing I've listened to is a double album called Last Flight, which is said (in the liner notes) to feature the entire last concert performed by the group at Winterland: there are some rarely performed pieces such as The Son Of Jesus and Aerie (Gang Of Eagles), the latter with an excellent performance by Casady, but the CD sounds halfway between simply bad and truly horrible, making its purchase strictly "for fans only".

So we can only be grateful for Thirty Seconds Over Winterland being re-released, with unreleased tracks. The sound is the same as it was in its vinyl incarnation: not fantastic, but definitely not bad, either, with the unreleased cuts sounding just a cut below; all in all, a nice remastering job by Vic Anesini. There are some fine and useful liner notes by Jeff Tamarkin, who penned the only biography of the group: Got A Revolution! The Turbulent Flight Of Jefferson Airplane.

What I noticed at the time was how different the new rhythm section sounded: compared to Dryden, John Barbata was maybe a more "reliable" drummer, but to me his "bigger" sound appeared to overcrowd a middle part that already sounded crowded; more "rubbery"- and round-sounding than per its usual, Jack Casady's bass was simply fantastic (for a long time I tried to determine the bass make - there was a picture in the back cover - with no success: I learned later it was the first bass made by Alembic). On vocals, the former bass player in Quicksilver Messenger Service, David Freiberg (destined to remain for a long time inside the group's orbit), was essentially called to complete the vocal mix, now that Balin was not there anymore.

The album's first side opened with Have You Seen The Saucers, a Kantner track that had originally appeared only as a single (coupled with Mexico). Then, a lively performance of a "light" Kaukonen song featured on Bark, Feel So Good, taken to great length by a quite successful instrumental interplay. Side One had a fine performance of one of the group's most famous, and best, tracks, Crown Of Creation, as its final track.

Side Two opener was When The Earth Moves Again, the first track on Bark, followed by Milk Train, with a fine violin by Papa John Creach, a nice solo part by Kaukonen, and a good vocal performance by Slick. Trial By Fire was a lazy-sounding track so typical of the Hot Tuna sound. Sporting somewhat opaque lyrics, Twilight Double Leader was the closing track, with appropriate guitar fireworks.

The bonus tracks here are for the most part quite good. Wooden Ships gets a good reading, even if the vocals are a bit shaky. Long John Silver is excellent, with lotsa fire. There's also a new version of the Hot Tuna standard Come Back Baby, followed by a rare performance of the Grace Slick tune Law Man, off Bark. In closing, a medley: the group anthem Volunteers is combined with a fragment from Diana, off the Kantner and Slick album, Sunfighter.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2009 | Dec. 1, 2009