To quote Richard M. Nixon (it seems appropriate for the era), “let me make one thing perfectly clear” — There is no Jefferson Airplane without singer Marty Balin, anymore than there’s a Beach Boys without Dennis and Carl Wilson. It’s not that any of them were the the whole show, but they were all critical parts of the ensemble. In Balin’s case, it was his wild and free vocals that provided some of the Airplane’s best moments.
In late 1969, Balin was beaten up by Hell’s Angels when he leaped into the crowd to come to the aid of an audience member who the Angels had fallen upon. It was an early omen of things to come later that day at Altamont. A little more than a year later, he left the Airplane. By then Paul Kantner’s burgeoning interest in sci-fi had changed the creative direction of the band, and Balin’s brooding love songs were being pushed aside. Kantner’s solo album Blows Against the Empire was released in 1970, laying the groundwork for the Jefferson Starship. Another factor in Balin’s departure was the death of his friend Janis Joplin. When the Janis died, Balin became determined to pursue a healthier lifestyle, while the rest of the band continued drugging and drinking as if nothing had changed, which resulted in his isolation from the other members. By then, original drummer Spencer Dryden had left the band as well.
By the time the Jefferson Airplane arrived to play at San Francisco’s Winterland Theatre in September, 1972, they were a different band. Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, although still members of the Airplane for the time being, had formed the blues-based band Hot Tuna, whose members included veteran violinist Papa John Creach, who also became a member of the Airplane. The battle lines within the band were drawn, with Kantner and Grace Slick on one side, and Kaukonen and Casady on the other. So, with the band members barely speakers, the Airplane landed at Winterland, determined to prove that they were still one of the great live bands of the age. The shows were recorded, and in 1973 they released Thirty Seconds Over Winterland. Iconoclassic Records, the wonderful reissue company out of Hyannis Port, MA has now released a new version of the album, remastered by Grammy-winning engineer Vic Anesini from the original master tapes. The Iconoclassic release also contains five bonus tracks from the Winterland shows.
The good news is that this new version of the album sounds fantastic. The people at Iconoclassic love music. They’ve proven that over and over. Great care is taken with each release to present classic music in its best possible form. Musically, the Airplane is in top form, a force of nature that simply refuses to be tied down, explosive, energetic, and ferocious. Kantner’s new material, such as “Have You Seen the Saucers,” and “When The Earth Moves Again,” insures that the music remains fresh, while classics like “Crown of Creation,” and a disappointingly cursory performance of “Wooden Ships” keep the customers satisfied.
The problem, and it’s a big one, is in the vocal department. Balin’s voice is terribly missed. The old blend of his tenor with Kantner’s baritone and Slick’s soprano is gone. It’s like the heart has been cut out of the band. It doesn’t help that Slick’s performance is horrible. She’s off pitch at times, and seems intent on making inappropriate comments during songs. Kantner voice was never exactly the dominant piece of this puzzle, and the place where Balin’s songs and singing used to be has been taken by Kaukonen’s blues like “Come Back Baby,” and “Trial By Fire,” basically creating a Hot Tuna set within the Airplane performance. Former Quicksilver bass player and vocalist David Freiberg is also onboard singing, but his contribution is negligible at best.
So what we have here is an album that is part Hot Tuna, part Jefferson Starship, and part what’s left of the Jefferson Airplane. It’s the sound of a band coming apart, which is exactly what happened after this album was released.