In May of 1968, when Jefferson Airplane performed the four concerts that have yielded this 'Live At the Fillmore East' release, I was all of 14 years old, and one of my favorite listens was the underground FM radio station in Detroit, WABX. Aside from playing the cutting edge psychedelic music of the era, it was a trip in itself to take in the spaced-out DJ's this station let loose on the airwaves. It wasn't unusual, for instance, to hear a couple minutes of dead silence while the chemically altered spinmeister tried to decide what to play next, or to accomodate the station identification regulation with a quick "...ABX". This Airplane disc made me harken back to those days, what with the obviously random, spontaneous, and unrehearsed between-songs banter offered up by singers Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and Marty Balin. They meander through conversations about when songs were written, to a discourse on a recent bust of the Grateful Dead in New Jersey, to a Slick monologue on a chocolate cookie that had been handed to her. And yes, there are a couple minutes of dead silence to be had. Surrounding the nostalgia, however, is a host of great psychedelia.
Aside from Grace herself, the slickest moment on 'Live At the Fillmore East' is the opening minute, featuring a deafening recording of a Boeing 707 taking off. As the wail of the jet engines subsides, we hear "Thank you for coming..." echoing about the Fillmore, and the opening, feedback-drenched strains of 'The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil'. It's a great opener, with its fat, fuzz-tone guitar leads from Jorma Kaukonen, and a several minute pounding bass bridge solo courtesy of Jack Casady. It's one of four tracks that break the seven minute barrier, in addition to the stealth rocker 'Star Track' (an homage to James T. Kirk?), featuring a great wah-pedal lead from Kaukonen, the instrumental 'Thing', which slowly builds in tempo, intensity, and complexity into a flat-out rocker with many guitar variations on its theme, and a cover of Donovan Leitch's 'Fat Angel', a typical Donovan flower-powered ("Fly trans-love airways, get you there on time...") yet funky compostion. The only other cover is Fred Neil's 'The Other Side of This Life', which along with 'It's No Secret' and 'Watch Her Ride' are rather generic rockers, undistinguished but doing no harm here either. For me, the standout tracks are those drawn from my favorite JA disc, 'Surrealistic Pillow', and those featuring Grace Slick, the finest female vocalist from the psychedelic genre. Her talents are front and center on 'Greasy Heart', 'White Rabbit', and 'Somebody To Love', and the performances are fresh, vibrant, and intense. Add to this list of highlights a worthy electric rendition of the acoustic beauty, 'Today' from 'Surrealistic Pillow', and you have the core of one outstanding, even historic performance. The only weak tracks on the disc are 'Wild Tyme', whose lyrics are embarassingly dated, and 'Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon' which comes off sluggish and pressured.
Given that the year was 1968, these recordings are of astounding quality. It's truly a wonder than such a fine document of the Airplane's live persona remained buried for three full decades. Brilliant graphics and several pages of interesting liner notes from Jeff Tamarkin make for a complete, informative package (lyrics would be too much to ask from a live disc, since you so seldom are blessed with them even from studio productions). If you're a fan of early Jefferson Airplane studio discs, you should find this production both entertaining and enlightening. It's truly one of the better live testaments from the psychedelic era.