The Second Disc

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Review: Jefferson Starship, “Live in Central Park NYC May 12, 1975”

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Jefferson Starship - Live“The police say you guys in the trees are causing problems…you can either jump out or they’ll…do something!”  So went one of the colorful and increasingly adamant stage announcements about tree-dwelling audience members made throughout the near-entirety of Jefferson Starship’s free concert at New York City’s Central Park on May 12, 1975.  The eight-strong band line-up of Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Craig Chaquico, Papa John Creach, John Barbata, David Freiberg and Pete Sears was in a period of transition, on the cusp of what would become the group’s most successful record: Red Octopus.  Now, this spirited performance can be revisited on Real Gone Music’s 2-CD set Live in Central Park NYC May 12, 1975 (RGM-0183).

Red Octopus arrived in stores almost one month to the day after the Central Park concert, on June 13, 1975, and three songs would be previewed from that set: the AM-ready “Play on Love,” the rocking “Sweeter Than Honey,” and the forceful opening cut, “Fast Buck Freddie.”  Ironically, the song which propelled Jefferson Starship to the stratosphere, Marty Balin’s “Miracles,” was not in the set list at Central Park.  Though generally accepted as Jefferson Starship’s second album, Red Octopus was actually the first credited solely to the band.  The group’s 1974 debut, Dragon Fly, was billed to “Paul Kantner/Grace Slick/Jefferson Starship.”  The difference was the presence of Balin, who contributed his AOR epic “Caroline” to Dragon Fly but didn’t official rejoin his old Jefferson Airplane compatriots Slick and Kantner till early in 1975.

After the jump, we’ll jump back in time to 1975!

The frisson of a new-old band discovering a unified and organic “new” sound permeates Live in Central Park, with ample room left for improvisation and exploration.  There often seemed to be warring impulses in the Jefferson family; even the smash hit “Miracles” was hardly typical, with its strings and saxophones.  But the band was certainly on the same page on the Central Park stage, from the first notes of Dragon Fly’s hard-rocking “Ride the Tiger.”  It was one of four songs from Dragon Fly to be revisited in the Park, along with “Devil’s Den,” “Come to Life,” and “Caroline.”  “Come to Life,” written by Freiberg, Steven Schuster and Grateful Dead/Bob Dylan collaborator Robert Hunter, melded impressionism with visceral, timely commentary.  Slick and Creach’s “Devil’s Den” showcased Creach’s demonically possessed fiddle and a dramatic bass solo from Pete Sears that even incorporated a bit of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn.”  The almost-58-year old Creach also got a spotlight on the down-home blues of, well, “Papa John’s Down Home Blues” from his self-titled 1971 album.

That Jefferson Starship was stronger than the sum of its considerable parts is clear when one takes into account how many songs played in Central Park derived from side or solo projects.  In addition to Creach bringing “Papa John,” Balin salvaged two songs from his Bodacious DF album, named for the band Balin formed with former members of Grootna and Quicksilver Messenger Service.  (Balin produced Grootna’s 1971 Columbia album, which like Bodacious DF, is long overdue for a domestic CD reissue.)  Balin and Grootna’s Vic Smith co-wrote “The Witcher,” a down ‘n’ dirty R&B groove with some scorching guitar from Chaquico.  Smith penned “Drivin’ Me Crazy,” an all-too-little-known track with a great groove.  Balin delivers a typically strong vocal, and the song anticipated the pop direction Balin would take down the road with “Miracles” and “With Your Love,” the latter of which was also a Smith co-write.  Tasty piano licks and Creach’s fiddle add color to the dynamic performance here.  From Slick’s solo album Manhole, she and Pete Sears, on bluesy piano, performed the raunchy cabaret number “Better Lying Down.”  Slick introduced it as “the barroom number without the barroom.”  (The charismatic Slick is in good humor for all of her stage announcements.)

Naturally, Jefferson Airplane material played a role in the concert, as it still does today in the Kantner-led Jefferson Starship.  “Just your basic Paul Kantner-type song” is how Slick referred to the sci-fi-themed “Have You Seen the Saucers,” originally a non-LP B-side for the Airplane.  Perhaps “just your basic Grace Slick-type song” might be an accurate way to describe the iconic “White Rabbit.”  Slick clearly had fun with the Lewis Carroll-inspired psychedelia, and the non-Airplane members onstage played as if they, too, had been playing the song for years.  Papa John Creach, who joined the Airplane late in its life, brought another new dimension to the familiar Slick composition.  Sandwiched between “White Rabbit” and Jefferson Airplane’s most successful song, Darby Slick’s “Somebody to Love,” Red Octopus’ searing “Sweeter Than Honey” – with a drum solo from John Barbata, formerly of The Turtles – kept the energy level from ever flagging.  Barbata kicks off and indeed anchors a tough, hard-rocking reinvention of “Somebody to Love.”

Live in Central Park, produced for release by Real Gone’s Gordon Anderson, includes a booklet with photographs of the event and a strong new essay from Richie Unterberger drawing on fresh recollections from Starship pilot Paul Kantner.  Mark Wilder has remastered the two discs from a tape provided by Jefferson Starship, and though the sound isn’t studio quality, the significance of the music outweighs the sonic deficiencies.  (Vic Anesini is erroneously credited on the disc for the remastering.)  Real Gone is also upfront about the drop-off in quality on two songs (“Come to Life” and “Have You Seen the Saucers,” both sourced from a different tape) and the closing seconds of a third, the set-closing “Volunteers.”  Balin and Kantner’s incendiary 1969 song retained its great power in front of an audience still reeling from the end of the Vietnam War just two weeks earlier.

The audience members in the trees may never have wanted to come down – in either sense of the expression.  But it’s not hard to see why.  This line-up of Jefferson Starship was one of the band’s strongest, synthesizing all of the various strains of the members’ styles into a powerful whole.  Listening to Live in Central Park, it’s hard to disagree that, yes, the San Francisco band (in all its iterations!) did built that city on rock and roll…and made quite a splash in the Big Apple, too.

You can order Live in Central Park NYC at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

November 5, 2013 at 14:24

Posted in Jefferson Starship, News, Reviews

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3 Responses

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  1. Bodacious D.F. is one of the great unknown albums from a major artist


    November 5, 2013 at 19:07

    • I couldn’t agree more!

      Joe Marchese

      November 5, 2013 at 20:10

  2. I was at the concert – my entire school on West 88th street emptied out, including the teachers, when we heard about it. However, I have zero recollection of what it actually sounded like. Now I’ll get my chance to revisit!

    Jeremy Shatan

    November 6, 2013 at 11:54

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