I know what you are thinking - another long in the tooth, washed up, mid-sixties (both the era and their age!) band, that I should not waste my time reading this brief review, let alone think about seeing them. However, take the 3 minutes and read on.
First, the venue I saw them at is a small club about 5 minutes from my house, so it is a low pressure, easy tuesday night out. Plus it is very small and intimate, and for an act like this, it is not very crowded - I would say 250 people with capacity in the 600 range. Plenty comfortable, and any show takes on a new complexion when you are standing literally 12 feet away from a legend of the San Francisco scene and sound, and real-deal hipster hippie Paul Kantner. In addition, in today's world of out-of-control ticket prices, it is refreshing to pay $25 at the door ($20 in advance). Kantner is still out there pushing forward and doing it for some reason. Sometimes sad to see these guys trudging through small, half full clubs, but they must adhere to "we used to play for silver, now we play for life". The 3 or 4 vintage electric guitars Kantner was playing was almost worth the price of admission - just beautiful! Along with Kantner, who looked pretty good for a relatively worn guy, is: David Frieberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service and now long-time JS member (he and Kantner were folkies together dating back to '62) who still has a heck of a voice but looked kinda-like a grand-ma (not grand-pa) with curly white hair; long-time JS lead guitarist Slick Aguilar who, while not spectacular, held his own in the big Scandinavian shoes he had to fill for these ears; one of the highlights of the night was drummer Prarie Prince who has played with Todd Rundgren (who I also just saw) and the Tubes - this guy was unbelievable, and put on one of the best, fullest drumming performances I have ever seen (honest!), and I have seen alot of drummers sharing a stage; the weak point of the show was the other side of the rhythm section, as they had a guy on a Korg synthesizer playing the bass lines and other assorted stuff - certainly NOT a replacement for the thundering Jack Cassady; and last but not least the sparkle and energy of the show, Diana Mangano singing the Grace Slick parts for JS since 1993. Diana has an incredible voice, is very easy on the eyes, lit up the stage, was an energy source, and certainly exuded sex appeal - great all around. She is from the surrounding Buffalo area, so she had alot of family there, which made it both fun and a real Buffalo gathering. Apparently Kantner hired her on the spot after listening to a demo tape of Diana singing Lather that was handed to him after a show he played in Buffalo back in '93.
One more side note before delving into the music - I love watching the people in the audience at these shows. "Who ventures out for these shows" I wonder, and then get some entertainment watching them. Grey haired out of shape guys dancing like crazy and older women grooving like they were at Alpine Valley in 1987; or the older guy who is probably an accountant or attorney standing there listening intently with an appreciative smile; or the 'younger' people like me, and some inquisitive real young people fill out the place. Why it still is unusual for me to see and think of 65 year olds dancing and juking to the music...of 65 year old musicians, I don't know, but it does. At the same time, I hope I am up dancing and juking when I am 65 - but these bands that I dance to will all be dead!
It all comes down to the music... They opened the show with a bunch of Airplane tunes - I was not expecting much to be honest, but they really blew me away. They started with Get Together (Youngbloods original, but Airplane did it huge justice), they did the biggies - Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, which Mangano really made work. Grace is awfully tough to truly do justice to, but this night Mangano did well. They played some other nice nuggets like Jorma's Good Sheppard, and a couple other assorted tunes. However, the fourth tune of the night legitimized the whole night and the band - Blue Eskimo Day simply blew me away (marquee line of the tune is "...the human name, doesn't mean shit to a tree"). It made me think of how damn good the Airplane was and that these guys really made it happen - I bought in, and relished that I was seeing this holy grail music performed live 15 feet in front of me. The power of Prarie Prince on the drum kit can not be stressed enough, and the timing of the band on a very distinctly timed tune was compelling.
Kantner left the stage to Frieberg and the rest, and he did the great folk tune San Francisco Bay Blues, followed by the Dead tune Loser. Aguilar continued the Dead scene by doing Deal. I think they partly do these Dead tunes to play to the crowd, but they did a good job with them, and IMHO they are justified doing them as they were friends and contemporaries of Garcia and the band. I think Aguilar then went solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, but we stepped outside to get some inspiration for the second half of the show.
Kantner and the rest of the band came back on and did a variety of good Starship tunes - the grandiose sci-fi, environmental tunes that Kantner was all into in the late 70's and 80's, and they played them with power and emotion. I am not overly familiar with most of the tunes or that era of JS, but have certainly heard some of them and definitely recognized the form and genre.
To close the show, they did a great old Quicksilver tune Pride of Man and then launched into the Frieberg composition Jane. Again, because I am not in tune (no pun intended) with the cheeseyish Starship stuff, this tune hit me out of nowhere - if you don't know it, you have to listen to it and you WILL know it: http://www.amazon.com/gp/music/wma-pop-up/B00000BKJ8002005 They pulled this power-cheese song off really well, Frieberg belted out the vocal, and it was really good. Back to serious business, they finished the show with the great Airplane tune and Kantner composition You and Me and Pooneil. The encore choice was going to be an Airplane classic - but which one? Kantner wrote some great ones like Have You Seen the Saucers, We Can Be Together, Wild Tyme, Saturday Afternoon, and co-wrote Wooden Ships with Stills and Crosby. The Airplane version of Wooden Ships is far superior to the CSN in my opinion and I would loved to have heard it, but they chose the hippie anthem Volunteers. The morning maniac music was a fantastic way to end a very surprising over the top performance.
Moral of the story: give these lesser expensive acts - whether they are dinosaurs or new acts - a chance and support your local music venues. Maybe, just maybe, you will be pleasantly overwhelmed by this music!