Review by Rob Billingham, photos by Lisa Billingham
1965 saw the birth of psychedelic rock pioneers Jefferson Airplane and tonight the Robin welcomes the band in its current incarnation Jefferson Starship, celebrating 50 years of the band’s existence and music. With a seemingly ageless Paul Kantner still at the helm after all those years, who’s betting against a 60 year anniversary tour?
With folk music an integral part of the Jefferson’s sounds, support act Auburn, a UK band fronted by vocalist Liz Lenten, seemed the ideal choice to get the healthy sized crowd into the mood for the guys and gal from over the pond. Playing as a three piece acoustic unit tonight, my first impressions took me back to another 60’s trio, The Springfields (ask your parents!). I think the gentle, laid back nature of opening song ‘Sitia Bay’ almost caught the crowd in two minds, so polite was the applause. Slowly, Liz and the boys started to win them over with a set of their bluesy, folksy story telling music, undoubtedly heavily influenced by sounds American.
With solid, if not spectacular support, given that they never moved from their respective stools, from guitarist Mark Gustavina and bassist Jevon Beaumont, Liz Lenten at times sang with a frailty that gave her songs an atmosphere and emotion that a balls-out delivery might have ruined, not that she hadn’t got the power when needed! Although showcasing a new, soon to be released album, Mixed Feelings, I have to say my set highlight was the aforementioned ‘Sitia Bay’, with its Billie Holliday vocal treatment.
Given that we now had an hour to wait before the appearance of Jefferson Starship, could not Auburn have given us a couple more, I wonder.
Minor rant over, one by one Chris Smith, Jude Gold, Donny Baldwin, David Freiberg, Paul Kantner and Cathy Richardson made their way, without undue ceremony , into the arena, to enthusiastic cheering and applause before moving swiftly into ‘Ride The Tiger’ from the ’74 album Dragon Fly. From then on it was pure Jefferson Starship and Airplane all the way, save for a couple of Quicksilver Messenger Service (Freiberg’s first band of note founded by him in ’68) numbers and a bouncy Cathy Richardson number ‘Everything Is All I Want’, perhaps the “poppiest” song of the night. I use the term guardedly as the current Jefferson band have avoided playing songs from debatably their most pop orientated era when the band was known just as Starship. “We don’t play ‘We Built This City'” is a bands official statement to their fans, so they didn’t! Then again, with songs like ‘Miracles’ picking you up and taking you on a cloud of sublime harmonies back to those carefree days of sun, free-love and flowers, why would they?
Replacing the iconic Grace Slick as frontwoman/vocalist was never going to be easy and comparisons will always be made, but Paul Kantner must have had something extra in his coffee when he call upon the services of Cathy Richardson. Vocally, she was nigh on perfect and due respect to Slick’s legacy is obvious, but doesn’t have a stranglehold on her own performance. And the audience love her! Freiberg and Kantner chipped in with contrasting vocal contributions, Freiberg more so, his smooth, melodic sounds so evident in ‘Coming Back To Me’ and quite honestly defying his years. Guitarist Jude Gold proved his credentials throughout with some slick sounds, showcased beautifully in his solo number, the instrumental ‘Embryonic Journey’ from the Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow, from which several songs featured tonight. With crowd faves ‘Let’s Get Together’, ‘Somebody To Love’, ‘Jane’ and ‘Volunteers’ also on the menu, Jefferson Starship conjured up a magical, nostalgic journey for many tonight and who knows, with no signs of Messrs Kantner and Freiberg hanging up their guitars any time soon and with a band of such fine musicians around them performing as they did tonight, that 60 year celebration tour could well be reality. Now that would be something!