JEFFERSON AIRPLANE/GRATEFUL DEAD
The Carousel, San Francisco
The cream of San Francisco rock - the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead - got together here for the first time in many months. Following a three-month Pacific Northwest tour, the Dead and the Airplane had returned as partners to open their own ballroom, the Carousel, in competition with Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium and Chet Helms' Avalon Ballroom.
The Dead had not played for either Graham or Helms in nearly a year, because they opposed the way most dance-concerts are conducted.
Both bands did two sets, each lasting more than an hour. Though the Airplane has by far the biggest national reputation, the Dead proved to be the stronger musicians.
Balin, in the group's early days, nearly carried the Airplane on the strength of his powerful vocals. And though the repertoire now is structured around the exceptionally versatile voice of Miss Slick, there are signs that this approach is wearing a bit thin.
Solos are longer than ever before, limiting the role of the lyrics, but the quality of playing has improved markedly. Casady is one of the finest bass players in rock - perhaps the finest - and his solos will surely wake up other groups to the fact that the bass can be more than just decoration for the lead guitar.
On one song, Casady played acoustic guitar and Balin played bass, an indication that the group is going in for more versatility.
But it was the Dead's second set that made the evening particularly important. It was one of the best sets the group has ever done in this city, and the light show, by underground filmmaker Ben Van Meter, caught the rhythm perfectly, turning the event into a total sensory experience.
In the first set, the Dead had indicated it was into something quite different from what it was doing even six months ago. At that time it was, like the Airplane, still dependent on lyrics as the basic ingredients of its songs.
Now it is the music that is important. It's more jazz than rock and aims at a peak experience instead of just a good time. On one song, McKernan, who also does fine vocals on Junior Wells' Good Mornin', Little Schoolgirl, launched into a kind of formless Joycean chant. As another forceful sound, it complemented the instruments.
The Dead has added a second drummer, Micky Hart, son of drummer Roy Hart, and new worlds of dynamics have opened up. Hart joined several months ago in New York. Sommers still seems to carry the weight in the drum solos, but Hart has excellent control.
Garcia is one of the unacknowledged greats of the rock guitar. He can make it sound like a horn and always plays as if entranced, his shaggy head wagging, his fingers fretting and picking as if they had a life of their own.
The set ended with fireworks and smoke-bombs that, in the hands of most groups, usually come off as a cheap gimmick. Not this time. Solos had built crescendo upon crescendo like layers in a foundation; each note had been wrung of the last drop of emotion. Something had to explode, and it did - literally. There followed a brief and incongruous bidding of goodnight, sung by the whole group in choir-boy fashion.
The Dead again proved that it is probably the tightest band in rock, despite the fact that there is now more improvising in its playing than ever before.
(by Geoffrey Link, from Down Beat, 27 June 1968)