February 24, 2023

The idea behind this live album is a simple yet rather brilliant one. Anyone familiar with the post-millennium Jefferson Starship will be aware of the quality of their musicianship, with the only question being over the 1980s material (latter JS and the dreadful Jefferson-less ‘Starship’) still conjured up by the name. Everything should have aligned perfectly when they set out on a tour in 2008 billed as the band performing the set which the Airplane did at Woodstock almost 40 years earlier. With Paul Kantner and David Freiberg still present and correct, along with gifted guitarist Slick Aguilar and excellent vocalist Cathy Richardson, this recording of one of those shows (at Del Mar Fairgrounds in California) seems like it should be a perfect aligning of all of the positive ‘Jefferson stars’, if you will. In actual fact, while there is much to admire about a lot of the performance here, it is let down by a few crucial flaws.

Firstly, and at the very basic level, it isn’t actually what it purports to be, as the nine tracks here feature only seven of the thirteen songs performed by the Airplane in their ludicrously delayed 8am time slot at Woodstock. Six songs are left unplayed, while two are Grateful Dead tracks which are performed owing to Dead keyboard player Tom Constanten joining them on piano. That isn’t a fatal flaw in and of itself if the material is well enough presented, but this leads us to the second flaw: the recording quality.

Paul Kantner

Now, no-one expects recordings from the vaults to be perfect or even close to it, and to be fair over half of this set is very well recorded and highly recommended. But when the faults do arise they are distracting. Chief among these is the recording level of Kantner’s voice during some of the set (oddly, not all). When the opening 3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds begins, his voice is so overpowering that for a moment I actually wondered if it was an audience recording with the person holding the mic singing loudly along himself. Freiberg and Richardson sound as if they are in an adjacent building, and it’s hard to ignore. Thankfully, things get much better for a while, and Somebody To Love, The Other Side Of This Life, Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon and Eskimo Blue Day are excellent. When Richardson’s voice is allowed to shine, she reveals herself to be a quite remarkable fit – she channels the spirit of the immortal Grace Slick to perfection at times, especially in Somebody To Love and Eskimo Blue Day. The coincidentally-named Slick Aguilar also shines with some beautiful guitar work. Things are seeming to be well back on track, with only the very occasional overloud Kantner-ism creeping in, but it is at this point that the understandable yet deeply ill-advised decision to bring on Constanten for two songs puts a sizeable spike in proceedings.

It would be reasonable if Constanten joined in on a couple of the missing Airplane Woodstock tracks, but shoe-horning in two irrelevant songs from the Dead repertoire backfires. The band seem under-prepared and somewhat under-enthused about playing this material, and the sound quality once again for some reason takes a dip. The six-minutes of the rather drab bluesy Deal is plagued by very muddy sound and vocal imbalance again, while the outstanding part of the track, a lengthy and beautifully fluid guitar solo by Aguilar taking up the latter portion, is barely audible at times. You can tell how good it is, but having to strain to hear it is a definite spoiler, and the honky tonk bar-room-piano sound of Constanten being way up front and centre makes it worse still. The old warhorse I Know You Rider falls at the first hurdle, with the band (apart from the cheery Constanten) sounding rather bland and perfunctory even if the sound were better. The energy level of the set has been sunk by these two songs, without doubt.

Happily, at this point, Constanten is ushered offstage, and the band are allowed to start doing what they do best again, which is to shine on their own history with a sound which has greatly improved again. White Rabbit is as good as you could expect (the band rarely performed it as well as the iconic studio recording, even back in their prime), and it sets us up nicely for a triumphant Volunteers to close out the set, and leave us on a high which also carries a sense of frustration at how much better this fascinating and mostly well-performed set could have been.

The Woodstock songs omitted here are a mixture of lesser material and genuine Airplane classics: Plastic Fantastic Lover, Uncle Sam’s Blues, Wooden Ships (scandalously omitted), Come Back Baby (less so), The Ballad Of You Me And Pooneil and The House At Pooneil Corners. While this is a flawed listen, I can confidently say that had the remainder of these songs been played, Tom Constanten’s drab Dead material been expunged, and the sound issues sorted, what remains would have been the absolutely killer album this promised to be. Not a bad listen all told by any means, but certainly a profoundly frustrating one – albeit an experience which will not be repeated since the passing of Kantner some years ago, so in that sense certainly a recording well worth preserving for posterity.