More than one long, strange trip began along the San Francisco Bay in 1965. The spotlight this year had been on The Grateful Dead’s anniversary during the Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago but more recently the San Francisco sound was again celebrated at The Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, CT. Exactly 50 years after the founding of the Jefferson Airplane, the Jefferson Starship teamed up with Jazz is Dead and Quicksilver ‘Happy Trails’ to mark the occasion.
Jazz is Dead made a return this summer after a 10-year hiatus, prompted by the occasion of the Dead’s 50th anniversary. Though their set was only an hour long (since they were sharing it with two other incredible acts) it was enough for them to make a solid statement about their interpretation of the Grateful Dead. The set was led in by Tom Constanten, who played alongside Pigpen in the Grateful Dead on keys around 1968-1970 including the Woodstock festival, playing “Mountains of the Moon” on keyboard. Founding bassist Alphonso Johnson was also joined by Jeff Pevar (guitar), Rod Morgenstein (drums), and Chris Smith (keys). The sound of Jazz is Dead was unique; the performance wasn’t a straightforward cover of Dead songs but rather a well-polished, technically tight arrangement of the originals that made it almost their own to a degree. In “Sugaree,” for instance, reggae rhythms were built around the main ideas of the Grateful Dead’s version. It is true that Jazz is Dead is a cover band, though defining them as one after their set in Ridgefield seems far-fetched because their arrangements are so interesting and refreshing.
A shorter set was presented by Quicksilver ‘Happy Trails,’ a version of Quicksilver Messenger Service assembled for the occasion. Founding member of Quicksilver Messenger Service David Freiberg was joined by singer and wife Linda Imperial along with some fellow members of Jefferson Starship to recreate the sounds of the band. The set included a tribute to the late keyboard player Nicky Hopkins during a jam on “Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder” and some psychedelic jams on the 50’s rock and roll inspired “Mona.”
Jefferson Starship isn’t in the same form as the times of “We Built This City.” Appropriately, they came back after a six-year hiatus in 1992 under the lead of Paul Kantner to honor the music of the band they were formed from. Playing songs of the Jefferson Airplane on the day of the 50th anniversary of that band’s founding was special, particularly for the choice of venue opposite the country from California. The Starship’s presence on stage was bold and cohesive – original members of the Airplane Paul Kantner and David Freiberg kept the sound true and original to the Airplane along with longtime Starship drummer Donny Baldwin, keyboardist Chris Smith and guitarist Jude Gold. The animated and exhuberant Cathy Richardson fulfilled the big-shoes role created by Grace Slick’s powerful vocals, to whom she gave a tip of the hat to near the end of the set. Together they made the performance feel engaging to the audience with down to earth, unscripted banter and humor between songs, which has been a consistency for the group through the past several years.
The Starship’s setlist wasn’t able to cover every fan favorite but included the staples like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” The other parts of the set were more treats than crowd pleasers. Gold took the room through the busy finger-picked guitar tune“Embryonic Journey” adding his own improvised licks to the instrumental song. “Wooden Ships,” which Kantner wrote along with Crosby, Stills and Nash, carried a similar feel to CSN’s performance but Kanter’s and Richardson’s vocal duets throughout the song soared in its own way. The encore of performance of “Volunteers” was straight-forward but not moot. More than just a favorite, it marked the peak of energy in the show with members of Jazz is Dead, Quicksilver, and some of the crew coming on stage to jam along; the audience taking to their feet.
Hiding in the dark of a concert is the sound engineer – the person who can make or break the sound and experience of a show yet often not in the limelight. This particular show, along with a few others where Jazz is Dead and Jefferson Starship are teaming up, was both hosted by and mixed by legendary sound engineer Dan Healy, most notable for his years working with the Grateful Dead and role in the development of the Wall of Sound system. “As real as it gets” is the only way to describe the sound. Aside from Healy’s ears at the controls, the experience of the early days of the Fillmore was captured with the Pig Light Show, a recreation of the types of psychedelic projections seen at those early shows.
Overall, the evening felt more of a community than band/audience. The small and cozy theater delivered a much bigger sound than first expected and added to the anticipation already in the air over the conglomeration of musicians who had immense contributions to the 1960’s San Francisco sound. One thing is for sure: never miss one-of-a-kind shows that don’t come around often like this one.
Jefferson Starship Setlist: She Has Funny Cars, Crown of Creation, Today, Lather, Wooden Ships, White Rabbit, Eat Starch Mom, Embryonic Journey, Have You Seen the Saucers, Greasy Heart, The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil, Somebody to Love
Encore: Somebody to Love
Jazz is Dead and Quicksilver ‘Happy Trails’