Volunteers: The Woodstock Experience
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2009, Volume 16, #9
Written by John Metzger
Fri September 25, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
Many of the artists that performed at Woodstock were just beginning to establish themselves, but Jefferson Airplane was on the verge of imploding. Within the span of just a few months, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick would be left to forge ahead on their own. Even so, the group poured everything it had into its fifth studio set Volunteers. Issued in November 1969, the collection not only served as Jefferson Airplane’s final hurrah, but it also delivered a potent message about the state of America.
As a veteran outfit as well as one of the biggest names in Woodstock’s line-up, Jefferson Airplane originally was slated to take the stage as a headlining act on Saturday. Nothing ran as planned, however, and the free-form atmosphere of the event combined with inclement weather as well as a slew of technical issues to push the band’s set to the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. If the members of Jefferson Airplane were exhausted, they didn’t show it — at least not immediately. The benefit of being up all night meant that the group was warmed up and ready to go. Consequently, the outfit wasted no time as it tore into The Other Side of This Life with a vengeance.
Over the course of its 13-song set, Jefferson Airplane barely came up for air. The effect of its rampaging, propulsive attack was to deliver a rush of caffeine to the masses that had gathered throughout the weekend. Songs like 3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds and Plastic Fantastic Lover were tackled at breakneck speed, as guitars stabbed and voices soared over a thrashing cadence of bass and drums. More often than not, the music assumed an air of violent intensity — never more so than during an epic rendition of Wooden Ships, which conjured images of post-apocalyptic mayhem. Not only was The Ballad of Me & You & Pooneil nearly as potent, but when it plunged headfirst into Starship, it also seemed to offer a possible solution to the madness.
Jefferson Airplane’s performances always seemed to lurk on the border of anarchy. If anything, its all-night vigil made it difficult for the band to maintain any kind of control over its output. As a result, its moodier material — Eskimo Blue Day, in particular — suffered considerably. Elsewhere, White Rabbit was turned into an afterthought, and although Somebody to Love, with its punk-rock growl, initially sounded gritty and dangerous, it ultimately lost its edge when it became bogged down in tribal beats.
As Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East demonstrated, Jefferson Airplane was capable of using its chaotic tendencies to paint reflections of the turbulent American landscape. At Woodstock, however, the band’s performance simply assumed a certain ramshackle aura that, in retrospect, can be difficult to digest. Regardless, Volunteers remains one of several classic outings in Jefferson Airplane’s considerable canon. In addition, although the outfit’s appearance at Woodstock was far from perfect, it also undeniably was an important moment in rock ’n‘ roll history.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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