Woodstock Performers: Jefferson Airplane

Updated on June 11, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2018 are stuck in her head.

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Jefferson Airplane were the perfect fit for Woodstock. Hailing from San Francisco, this wildly popular group of friends lived together, made music together and took drugs together.

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. The Who had wrapped up just after 6:00 a.m. with "My Generation/Naked Eye" and next up after the Airplane would come the official first act of Day 3, Joe Cocker.

One Pill Makes You Larger

On October 16, 1966, singer Grace Slick made her debut with Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore West auditorium after the departure of the band's first singer, Signe Anderson. Signe had a new baby daughter, and wanted to spend more time with her. Grace, meanwhile, wanted to spend more time with Jack Casady, the Airplane's bassist. Already well known in west coast music circles, Grace and her previous band the Great Society had often opened for the Airplane. Grace was a natural fit.

Jefferson Airplane defined psychedelic rock, and their lyrics and music epitomized the San Francisco counterculture. At the beginning of 1967, Bill Graham of Fillmore fame took over as the band's manager and set about making them more than just a west coast band. On January 8, 1967, the group made their first trip to New York, the first of 150 concert dates they would play that year. On January 14th, they were back on the west coast for the "Human Be-In" in Golden Gate Park, one of the seminal events leading up to 1967's "Summer of Love."

Surrealistic Pillow, the band's second LP, entered the Billboard album chart just weeks after its February 1, 1967 release, and remained on the chart for more than one year. The first single from the LP failed to chart, but the next two singles, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" reached the #5 and #8 spots respectively on the Billboard singles chart. This album is one of the very best of the psychedelic rock genre, and "White Rabbit," written by Grace Slick while she was still with the Great Society, was inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Hot on the heels of a busy 1968 schedule, with stops at Isle of Wight and numerous Fillmore (East and West) dates, RCA released the live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head in February 1969, culled from 1968 performances at the Fillmore West on October 24-26 and the Fillmore East on November 28-30. The album became the band's fourth Top 20 effort, peaking at #17 on March 15th, 1969. The band had also entered the studio again in April, after Grace's voice was sufficiently healed following throat node surgery, to start laying down tracks for their next album, Volunteers.

The Sunrise Between The Who and Jefferson Airplane

The sunrise just before the Airplane took the stage.
The sunrise just before the Airplane took the stage. | Source

Jefferson Airplane's Woodstock

The Airplane were the big headliners for Saturday's show, and were supposed to close out Day 2. That was just the way it was, and still is; the big name always closes the show. Of course, with all the delays, the close of Day 2 didn't actually occur until the morning of Day 3. The band had been hanging around since Saturday, waiting for their turn to go on. In the interim, they had tripped out on the salmon-pink LSD they had brought along with them. They finally hit the stage at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday.

The Airplane (Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden) were joined onstage by Nicky Hopkins on piano. Nicky was a well-known session musician who had played piano on "We Can Be Together," "Hey Fredrick," "Wooden Ships," "A Song for All Seasons" and "Volunteers"on the Volunteers album.

The band launched into their standard opener "The Other Side of This Life," a song written by Fred Neil (who also wrote "Everybody's Talkin'," recorded by Harry Nilsson for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack) that appeared on the album Bless Its Pointed Little Head. They followed that up with "Somebody To Love" from Surrealistic Pillow. Originally recorded by Grace while she was with the Great Society, the Airplane's version adopted a darker take on finding true love.

Alright friends, you have seen the heavy groups, now you will see morning maniac music, believe me, yeah... It's the new dawn...

— Grace Slick introducing the song "Somebody To Love"

Jefferson Airplane Performing "Somebody To Love" at Woodstock

Next up came "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds," "Won't You Try / Saturday Afternoon," "Eskimo Blue Day," "Plastic Fantastic Lover" and "Wooden Ships."

"Wooden Ships," co-written by Kantner, David Crosby and Stephen Stills, is a song about a post-apocalyptic flight to freedom that the band had recorded for the Volunteers LP. It also appeared on Crosby, Stills & Nash's self-titled debut, and they would also perform it during their set. The Airplane's more solemn version ran 21-minutes and the song's construction allowed the musicians to explore and turn it into one great, long jam.

It was Jorma's turn next, and he stepped up to the mic and led the band through a spirited version of "Uncle Sam Blues," and anti-war song that they performed live but never recorded for a studio LP.

They followed that with "Volunteers," another song from the yet-to-be-released Volunteers LP. The LP had an overriding anti-war, anti-establishment message, and though the song "Volunteers" (spoofing the Volunteers of America, a faith-based non-profit organization) was new to the audience, it's lyrics "...Look what's happening out in the streets, Got a revolution, Got to revolution..." totally resonated with the crowd at Woodstock. It would later flop as a single.

They closed their main set with “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” from After Bathing At Baxter’s. There was no way this crowd was going to let them get away now.

Jefferson Airplane Performing "Volunteers" at Woodstock

Jorma took the mic again for "Come Back Baby" from Surrealistic Pillow. Based on a traditional blues number by Walter Davis, Jorma's hard, driving rock arrangement turned it into something completely wild and fresh.

As spent as their audience by this point, the band then offered up two more crowd-pleasers, their 1967 hit “White Rabbit,” and “The House At Pooneil Corners” from the 1968 LP Crown Of Creation. The Airplane's slightly ragged set wound up at 8:45 a.m., and the Woodstock crowd could finally catch some z's.

Jefferson Airplane Performing "White Rabbit" at Woodstock

Life After Woodstock

After Woodstock, the band retreated to the west coast for a date at the Fillmore, then headed to New Orleans for the pop festival there. After a concert at Family Dog in San Francisco on September 6th, Casady and Kaukonen took a bit of a break to play a week of concerts in Berkeley, California. Calling themselves Hot Tuna, recordings from the Berkeley shows were later released as Hot Tuna's debut album in 1970. This marked the beginning of the end for the Airplane.

Their new album Volunteers was finally released in November 1969. Production issues and arguments with the label over the use of profane lyrics in the song "We Can Be Together" were at the root of the delay. The band won, with the offending words being mixed lower so as to be (almost) inaudible on the resulting mix.

Spencer Dryden was forced out of the group in February 1970, and after a break to recover from the "acid merry-go-round," he joined New Riders of the Purple Sage two years later. Tensions continued within the band, with two camps forming; Kantner/Slick and Kaukonen/Casady. Marty Balin left the group in 1971, and in 1972 Jefferson Airplane finally dissolved.

Kaukonen and Casady continued to work as Hot Tuna, achieving some success with that outfit. Kantner and Slick formed Jefferson Starship, and continued to record and perform under that name until 1985 when Kantner left. In 1989, there was a brief reunion of the classic Jefferson Airplane lineup (only Dryden was missing). The band stayed together long enough to record 1989's Jefferson Airplane. The material on the album was written or co-written by all band members, with the exception of "True Love," which was written by Steve Porcaro and David Paich of Toto.

Five Musical Facts

  1. Grace's previous outfit the Great Society had recorded a version of "Somebody to Love," which they called "Someone to Love." The producer? None other than Sylvester Stewart, later known as Sly Stone.
  2. Though he was credited on later pressings, Kantner didn't want his name attached to "Wooden Ships" as a co-writer on the original pressing of the Crosby, Stills & Nash album because he was in the middle of legal hassles with Jefferson Airplane's then manager, Matthew Katz, and feared that the CSN LP would end up in legal limbo.
  3. Just after their Woodstock appearance, the Airplane appeared with David Crosby and Stephen Stills on The Dick Cavett Show.
  4. In December 1969, the Airplane played at the now-notorious Altamont Concert in California. Counting their appearance at Monterey Pop in 1967, they were the only band to perform at all three iconic rock festivals of the 1960s.
  5. Guest musicians on the Volunteers LP included Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on pedal steel guitar, and Crosby and Stills.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 months ago from Canada

      Hi Flourish and thank you!

      The last group on Day 2, finally...and only 10 more to go :-)

      All of the folks from the Bay Area played together at various points it seems. It was such a vibrant music scene back then.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 months ago from USA

      I like how you mention all the various connections here among these groups. Great article and again, terrific series!

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 months ago from Canada

      Hi Pamela and thank you!

      I always thought Grace was so pretty, one of those natural beauties. Apparently, she hates the fact that she is so short. Her outfit at Woodstock was perfect.

      Their music was amazing...I still have Surrealistic Pillow and Bless Its Pointed Little Head on vinyl, and pull them out from time to time :-)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      2 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I always thought they were a good group. I like the voice of Grace Slick, and I like "White Rabbit" also. Interesting article again. Thanks Kaili.

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