This was a release which had me pricking my ears up, if only to see what sort of version of the Airplane/Starship configuration we would be getting here. Of course, the Airplane brand gets more respect among the majority, but up until, say, 1976’s Spitfire at least, I would contend that the albums released under the Jefferson Starship banner were arguably more consistent than many of the original Airplane releases (once the Jefferson was dropped that was a whole other ballgame, of course, but let’s put that to one side for the moment!) Now, interestingly enough, the line-up performing under the Jefferson Starship banner at the two shows which form this three-disc set are in fact something of a stripped back affair. In fact, it’s mostly acoustic guitars, keyboards and what sounds like an occasional tambourine, and would be an ‘acoustic’ line-up were it not for one crucial difference: namely, the superb lead guitar of Mark ‘Slick’ Aguilar, who is all over this on the majority of tracks, with a beautiful smooth tone and style which single-handedly lifts this out of the ‘acoustic’ arena and into something of a unique amalgamation, sort of electric with an acoustic base. If the Starship were a slightly more rock and less folky version of the Airplane, then this could be reasonably represented as a sort of ‘Jefferson Glider’, if you like. It shouldn’t really work, but somehow – with that omnipresent lead guitar pulse coursing through the music’s veins – it does.
Over the course of the three discs here, this is actually more Airplane than Starship in terms of the material, with a good 80% coming from that era. There are key Jefferson Starship tracks as well (Miracles of course, and also Caroline, St Charles and Count On Me), but this is crammed with Airplane classics. The line-up could trade under either banner, as Paul Kantner and Marty Balin are both present. Grace Slick had long gone by this time, but her replacement Diana Mangano puts in a decent shift, with a rather similar vocal style. There is no explanation given for the fact that there is no bass or drums for these shows, and it is something of a surprise given that they were a full touring band at that time. If you’re an Airplane fan, you really can’t complain here, with mostly top-notch versions of a whole roster of classics and deep cuts including Crown Of Creation, Triad, Lather, 3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds, Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon, The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil, Good Shepherd, Volunteers and Plastic Fantastic Lover, to name just a selection. There are also cover songs which I’ve never heard any of the Jefferson variants do before, so the spread of material is undeniably excellent. Two glaring omissions are the lack of either Somebody To Love or White Rabbit, and one can only surmise that they didn’t feel the ‘Jefferson Glider’ set-up would work for those tracks – and that would almost certainly be the case for White Rabbit, with its propulsive Bolero-like build. With Kantner and Balin at the helm, there are plenty of signature harmony vocals, with Miracles being a marvellous showcase for this side of the band’s talents.
Overall, the performances here have the feel of a loose and relaxed performance, with the vibe being paramount over tight, intricate arrangements, and that suits the Airplane material to a T. There are things here I could do without (Balin’s cloyingly saccharine Atlanta Lady being a prime offender), but for the most part this is all very good stuff. It does seem a little disingenuous not to advertise the instrumental make-up of the band in the packaging, and I can imagine some feeling a little misled when discovering the stripped-back nature of the performances – but thanks to Aguilar’s show-stealing guitar performances it mostly makes you forget it’s mainly acoustic, and after a while you don’t even notice the lack of the rhythm section. It just might have been the right thing to do to acknowledge this on the front, or at least back, of the cover. One thing which can be stated with some relief, however, is the overwhelming ‘Jefferson’ nature of this – rest assured that no cities were built during this performance, be it on ‘rock and roll’ or anything else. That particular 1980s cul-de-sac is wisely left very much alone!