Graded on a Curve: Jefferson Airplane,
Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969

The recent passing of Marty Balin puts me in an awkward situation–how do I eulogize a man I’ve been poking fun at for years?

Every year I tastelessly commemorate the anniversary of Altamont as “Punch Marty Balin in the Mouth Day,” but not because I disliked the man; fact is his work with the Jefferson Airplane brings me a lot of joy. As for his later years, he provided some much-needed yucks; his conflation of vagina with ultimate reality in “Miracles” (“I got a taste of the real world/When I went down on you”) always cracks me up, as does his wonderfully awful performance on “We Built This City.” But mock him as I might, Balin was a key member of one of the most important bands to emerge from the ballrooms of San Francisco’s psychedelic scene in the days leading up to the Summer of Love.

The Jefferson Airplane might not have had the mad improvisational skills of the Grateful Dead–you won’t find any 48-minute renditions of “Somebody to Love”–and they’ve left a fainter footprint on the counterculture than Jerry, Bobby et al. But Balin and Grace Slick were THEE VOICES of the acid experience in the late sixties, and on songs like “White Rabbit” the Airplane communicated the sheer visceral weirdness of LSD in a way the Dead never did.

And the archival treasure that is 2007’s Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969 captures the Airplane at their most fiery–and inconsistent. Recorded on November 28 and 29, 1969 in the city that never sleeps, this baby may disappoint fans of the early, folk-rocking Airplane, and offend those who don’t want to hear their faves played at warp speed. In short, if it’s subtlety you’re looking for, forget about it–on this live one from the vaults the Jefferson Airplane sound lean, mean, and very, very ready to trample their audience underfoot.

Just listen to their cover of Syl Johnson and Carl Smith’s “You Wear Your Dresses Too Short.” Balin shouts and leers and swears he’s going out of his mind; nuanced he ain’t, but if crude is your thing this acid-tinged blues shouter could just be your cup of meat.

Or check out their hard-driving take of Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life.” Grace wails, Balin emotes in an effort to reach the kids in the bleacher seats, and the interplay between lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner makes my synapses crackle like bug zappers.

And so it goes for many of other songs on the 12-cut Sweeping Up the Spotlight. Balin and Slick’s voices intertwine like snakes on opening cut “Volunteers” (Volunteers had just come out the month before), and it sure sounds like the revolution is on hand. Balin punches out the word “Got!” over and over while Kaukonen wails and wails, and this baby beats the studio version hands down.

Meanwhile, the ethereal “Good Shepherd” sounds positively visionary; Kaukonen’s guitar rings to the rafters, if not to Heaven itself, while Balin slurs his words like he’s just eaten a handful of reds. And when Kaukonen lets rip on his coupla solos, well, let’s just say I wish I’d been there.

“Plastic Fantastic Lover” is one helluva speedway boogie; this ain’t no mere airplane, it’s an F-16 screaming from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Sure, something gets lost in the sheer amphetamine rush, but between his screams and his mad speed rap Balin makes dead certain you’ll never hear the song the same way again.

Meanwhile, the Jefferson Airplane rarity “Uncle Sam Blues” is rough around the edges and Balin was never a blues singer, but hey; I’ll take my blues raw any day, and these cosmik blues are almost as raw as the ones being served up back in the day by Big Brother and the Holding Company.

“3/5 of a Mile in 10 seconds” is an interplanetary rave-up that connects, if barely; the Airplane fails to transmute the overly polite studio version into live gold, albeit not for lack of trying–Kaukonen’s guitar playing has an admirable urgency. Similarly, while the Airplane’s take on the traditional “Come Back Baby” has muscle, it doesn’t shine, and Balin is part of the problem–his reading of the song is perfunctory and his performance could hardly be called inspired. That said, Kaukonen plays killer guitar all over it.

The vocal interplay on the portentous and slow “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” is nice, but slotted in between the harder hitting tunes on Sweeping Up the Spotlight this one’s a baroque psych-folk snooze. Similarly, nuclear apocalypse ode “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” opens on an appropriately dissonant and jarring note but proceeds to noodle; I’m not a big fan of hallucinogenic rambles, and if this is what the end of the world sounds like I think I’ll take a pass.

“White Rabbit” is okay; I prefer the studio version for sure, but this is no disgrace. “Crown of Creation” crosses the line from crude but great to just confused, although Kaukonen–stone cold killer that he is–plays stinging guitar. I’ll take it, but I only get off on the loud parts.

Marty Balin was probably smart to parachute out of the Airplane when he did, namely after 1969’s great Volunteers and before 1971’s very confused Bark; while the Airplane would go on to do some interesting things without him, too often they came across as aging hippies still carrying a doused torch.

Problem is Balin didn’t make much of a mark on rock history after he left the Airplane. His work with Jefferson Starship is an acquired taste I’ve failed to acquire, although 1975’s Red Octopus has its moments. As for his solo work–you may be surprised to learn that Marty recorded some dozen solo LPs between 1981 and 2016–it varied from the merely proficient to unreconstituted shlock.

Still: a great man is gone. And this year’s Punch Marty Balin in the Mouth Day celebration is going to be a sad one.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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  • B12345

    After the Balin news, I listened to all his Jeff. Airplane LPs. I had forgotten how “heavy” or “hard” the early stuff sounds.

  • Michael Topper

    This is a terrible review, chock full of factual errors–it’s Kaukonen singing lead on “Uncle Sam Blues” and “Come Back Baby”, and Balin was never even in the lineup that cut “We Built This City”. Ay yay yay!

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