September 20, 2004

DVD Review: Fly Jefferson Airplane

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I've never really known much about Jefferson Airplane. Of course I had heard "Somebody to Love", but in my mind their biggest hit was "We Built this City" after they morphed into Starship. Little did I know that they had some really good songs in their early years, not to mention a vastly different sound.

I popped this disk in and sat back in the hopes of hearing some good music and seeing what the big deal was. Needless to say, I was very impressed with the band and this DVD which is focused on their early years, 1965-1973. It features 13 performances and videos intercut with new interview material with all of the band members and their manager. It also includes some extra interview footage concerning the origins of the band and the importance of the lighting director, among other topics.

The performances collected here are all first rate. It starts off with some of the earliest known video footage from the Bell Telephone Hour, a performance of "It's No Secret." Next up are a couple of great performances from the legendary Monterey Pop festival, "Somebody to Love" and "High Flying Bird." The band commented on playing this festival as a follow up to the Monterey Jazz festival the year prior and the differences in the environment. Next is a bizarre classic, "White Rabbit" from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It features Grace Slick wearing a full face of brown makeup singing one of the trippiest songs I'd ever heard. There are a few more songs from the Smothers Brothers show, which shows how supportive the Brothers were of the music scene, as the Airplane were rather strange, and the Brothers were big supporters of the music scene at the time.

The most memorable performance for me is "House at Pooneil Corners," from a rooftop in New York City and filmed by filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. A piece of guerrilla filming, they took to the roof tops without permits and proceeded to play their music until the police came in to shut them down. It was an amazing segment, they played great, much to the shock of the passing crowds below, people peeking out their windows. It was something to behold, to be copied the following year by The Beatles. Another great performance was "Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil" from Night at the Family Dog, what stood out to me here was the great bass solo from Jack Casady paired off with an equally good guitar solo from Jorma Kaukonen.

Closing out the the disk is a performance of "Embryonic Journey" from their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Jorma Kaukonen took to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and proceeded to play this great little tune, which I immediately recognized but had never known what it was called nor who had originally performed it. I had heard it many times on television shows and movies, mostly during segments in the 1970's. A simple yet beautiful instrumental.

Besides all of these great performances there are interviews with Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Paul Kanter, Spencer Dryden, and their manager Bill Thompson. Reminiscing on the formation of the band, and their search for an arrangement, the touring and how lucky they were. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the development of their sound, how one of them would take a lead, then the next time others would join in, all adding something a little bit different to the mix. This led to an unstructured sound blending rock and jazz and blues all in this trippy mix which happened to come around at the right time.

This is an excellent collection of performances and interviews, keeping the focus primarily on the performances. Coming from someone who is not familiar with them, I was impressed with the music they created, and this collects some of those performances all in one place. It was also great that they were able to get the participation of the all of the band members from that era. Something else I thought was interesting was the transformation that started in the early 1970's, the band started becoming more of a rock band. The music was getting a bit heavier and more structured, losing some of that jam band feel that had defined their sound up to that point.

Video. The disk is presented in it's original aspect ration of 1.33:1. It is a mixed bag, but that is to be expected due to the age of the material, and the fact that it was probably not stored in ideal conditions. Considering those factors, it looks great, it evokes the time period, the colors are vibrant. Nothing to complain about here.

Audio. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and extrapolated 5.1. I sampled both tracks and the both sounded good, the 5.1 mix sounding especially good, sound was full and represented the music well. A great listen.

Bottomline. This disk was a surprise, I loved the music and hearing about the band. I had picked this up, not only because of my own interest, but they had been one of my father's favorite bands from his younger days and I thought he would be interested in seeing it. I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan, or those who are fans of the current jam band scene, but may not be familiar with this band. To cap the package off, there are some excellent liner notes written by author Jeff Tamarkin.



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