The Airplane Family & Friends w/ Live Dead ’69
B.B. King New York NY
December 11 2016
By Gary Blicksilver
Photos by Sharon Budman
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From the youtube channel of Steve Keyser of the Airplane Family band the night before this show in Pawling, NY.
Long before the Grateful Dead, due to various personnel changes, morphed into The Dead, The Other Ones and more recently Dead & Company, one of their brethren (or to be fair, sistren) had already gone that same route. In 1972, when Jefferson Airplane decided to go atomic and split in two, the result yielded Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship. Further changes in membership led to a name simplification and Starship dropped the Jefferson altogether.
Fast forward to 2016, whose unrelenting funeral march claimed the life of original Airplaner Paul Kantner, but also gave birth to yet another incarnation of this legendary band – The Airplane Family & Friends. At first glance, this collection of musicians appears to be somewhat random, but with a little digging, the familial lines become familiar.
Both Slick Aguilar (guitar) and Prairie Prince (drums) played with Kantner in Jefferson Starship. Peter Kaukonen (bass) is the younger brother of Jorma and has played with both Jeffersons and Hot Tuna. Darby Slick (guitar), former brother-in-law of Grace, was a co-founder of The Great Society. Mike Falzarano (guitar) also played with Hot Tuna as well as New Riders of the Purple Sage, one of Jerry Garcia’s side projects. Sharing vocal duties in an effort to recreate the Grace Slick/Marty Balin dynamic, are Eva Avila (winner of Canadian Idol and star of The Wall Theatrical Extravaganza) and Joli Valenti (son of Chet Powers, aka Dino Valenti, who sang lead in Quicksilver Messenger Service).
The Airplane Family & Friends touched down Sunday, December 11, at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City. Sharing the bill was Live Dead 69, featuring original Grateful Dead pianist Tom Constanten and guitarist Mark Karan, who played with Rat Dog and The Other Ones (and thereby has played with every surviving member of the Grateful Dead). Aguilar, Kaukonen and Prince would join them for what would be a complete performance of 1969’s 2-LP classic Live/Dead.
To get this musical journey going, Constanten took his place at keys and worked through a solo of the Grateful Dead’s “Mountains of the Moon.” As ethereal as it sounded on Aoxomoxoa, here it came through as a delicate piece fit for an orchestra. As he neared the end of “Moon,” he was joined by Karan and Aguilar on guitar, Kaukonen on bass, and Prince on drums. Each slowly found their way into their respective groove and soon enough this ensemble was collectively jamming its way to Dead heaven and “Dark Star.” So it would go with each Live/Dead track, in order of the album.
Playing an LP in its entirety (for the first time anywhere, as this show is billed), even that of a live recording, has to create a certain amount of stress for the artists – the expectations are no doubt “specifically” high. That said, this new formation went for it, working through “St. Stephen,” “The Eleven,” and “Turn On Your Love Light,” which included the requisite drum solo. From there, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” led to “Feedback,” one of the earliest recordings illustrating where the Grateful Dead’s sound was headed, spatially speaking. One song however, the last from this set, would be played later…
As “Feedback” wound down, the Dead 69 quintet was joined by Slick, Falzarano, Valenti and Avila, who together started the Airplane-inspired portion of the evening with “The Fat Angel,” a song written by Donovan and appearing on Sunshine Superman. Airplane later covered this on their live Bless Its Pointed Little Head. Beginning with “The Other Side of This Life,” and now without Constanten or Karan, Family & Friends continued through a fantastic setlist consisting of Airplane, Starship and related artist material.
Darby Slick wrote “Somebody to Love,” and it appeared on Airplane’s second album, 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow. And now years later, Avila sang it with the same raw emotion as Grace Slick did way back then. Falzarano then took over on vocals with “Good Shepherd,” from Volunteers.
As if time had no meaning, and jumping back and forth through the proverbial portal was as easy as playing hopscotch, the band boomeranged between the eras playing “Count on Me” (Jefferson Starship’s Earth, 1978), followed by the previous decade’s “Get Together” (Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, 1966). It should be noted, and in the “family” tradition, that this last song was written by Valenti’s dad and was also recorded by both the Kingston Trio and The Youngbloods. That’s a song with some mileage, but still makes a crowd want to clap along – and they did just that.
“Greasy Heart” (Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation, 1968) led to “Today” (Surrealistic Pillow) and it being a Sunday and New York was ending Dallas’ 11 game winning streak, Valenti gave his support for the home team, shouting “GO GIANTS!”
The Chet Powers/Quicksilver Messenger Service tune, “Fresh Air,” brought us to “Crazy Miranda,” a song written by Grace Slick and recorded on Jefferson Airplane’s Bark. With Falzarano again on vocals, “Hesitation Blues” from Hot Tuna’s eponymously named 1970 debut was next. Back from their short respite, Avila and Valenti were back on vocals for The Great Society’s “Darkly Smiling.” This band would close out the regular part of the service with “Wooden Ships,” recorded by both Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Jefferson Airplane, followed by an outstanding Avila giving up her best Grace Slick on “White Rabbit.”
For the encores, and there would be three other nuggets to dig out, the band now back with Constanten and Karan, went full-tilt with four guitars on “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” This was followed by what might be the ultimate Airplane anthem “Volunteers.” For the final bow, they took the show full-circle and picked up where they deliberately left off on the Live/Dead opener, and performed an all-in “We Bid You Goodnight.”
Back to the time portal analogy – maybe time hopping isn’t so easy and in fact may be getting harder as our original set of rock heroes fly off into the sunset. No one knows what will be when the last of these first and second generation rock musicians are done, or even whether their children, or their children’s children, or associated family and friends will still be into “playing in the band.” But if these versions of Airplane and the Dead, along with all of their other close relatives, can keep the whole thing moving forward, then we should all be a little less worried about the passing of time, have a drink or two, and rejoice that we can still hear (and see) this wonderful music.
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