A superior vinyl re-mastering of an iconic, political 1960’s rock band!

Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers – RCA LSP-4238 (1969)/Speakers Corners(2017) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 44:19 ****1/2:

The San Francisco Sound enjoyed a huge impact on popular music. Bands like The Grateful Dead, Big Brother And The Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mother Earth, The Steve Miller Band, The Electric Flag and Moby Group adopted the freewheeling spirit of the Beatnik culture and its folk-based structures. Additionally, the various roots backgrounds and musical genres were intermingled in the evolving scene. At the Fillmore, it was not unusual to see a jazz great like Miles Davis sharing a bill with The Grateful Dead. In 1967 The Monterey Pop Festival connected San Francisco rock to the larger national culture.

One of the bands at the festival was Jefferson Airplane. Formed in the mid 1960’s, the core members Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen merged their blues and folk backgrounds into a psychedelic rock sound. Their first release, The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966) included songs like “It’s No Secret” and “Coming Up The Years” which expanded their local fan base. In 1967, there was a confluence of events that lifted the Jefferson Airplane to stardom. Bill Graham became the group’s manager. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival and singer Grace Slick (Great Society) became a member. She brought two songs “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” that appeared on the breakthrough album, “Surrealistic Pillow” (1967). In 1969, The Airplane hit a cultural zenith with appearances at Woodstock and Altamont. Later that year, Volunteers was released.

In Volunteers, the band found a collective voice, especially in the volatile political landscape that tore the country apart in 1968 and 1969. Speakers Corner has issued an audiophile vinyl re-master that showcases the pathos, erstwhile activism and narratives that defined the era. The original album title Volunteers Of America was coined by Marty Balin who was awoken by  a refuse hauling truck from the charity of the same name. Eventually, the simplified title stuck. While Volunteers did not have the air-friendly singles like Surrealistic Pillow, the more sophisticated musical nuances resonate. Side 1 opens with a signature Paul Kantner anthem, “We Can Be Together”. Framed by a straight ahead rhythm and Jorma Kaukonen’s jagged guitar licks, Kantner reflects on the ambivalence of 1969, mixing alienation with hope. The initial lyric, “We are all outlaws in the eyes of America” says it all. The Airplane’s underrated three-part harmonies and unison vocals have a graceful eloquence. An ethereal vocalese bridge and chord shift leads into the most renowned rock and roll profane warning (…”Up against the wall m…………”). Some agile Nick Hopkins piano riffs bring things to a satisfying close. The obscure 19th century hymn, Good Shepherd is a mellow folk roots transition. Kaukonen shines on lead vocals, acoustic and effect-laden (wah-wah) electric guitar. The backup vocals are uncanny, a slight delay call and response with attention to counterpoint.

In another change of pace, “The Farm” embraces another countercultural theme, back to nature. Grace Slick demonstrates impressive suppleness in embracing country vocals and the affirmative chorus (“…Oh so good, livin’ on the farm…”). The arrangement is looser and Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel work adds a festive vibe to this accelerated waltz. “Hey Frederick” may be the “sleeper” on Volunteers. At 8:26 it is the longest track and has compelling musical complexity. It begins as a down and dirty psychedelic blues with ominous shadings and rock hubris. Slick’s vocals are gritty and dynamic. The last half of the song is an extended coda jam that showcases the band’s instrumental licks and has a subtle up tempo shift.

Side 2 consists of 6 cuts that emphasize the diversity of Jefferson Airplane. “Turn My Life Around” exudes a classic ’67 band folk rock with a tasty Hammond run by Stephen Stills. Balin pushes the boundaries with his soulful vocals. And then there is “Wooden Ships” which carries an entire history of its own. Written by Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Paul Kantner, it was recorded on the epic Crosby Stills & Nash debut and Volunteers. Kantner was involved in a legal dispute and was unable to accept writing credit at the time. This version glows with warm texture. The gentle rhythm basks in the fluent, organic vocal dialogue between Balin and Slick. The atmospherics are complemented by the searing tonality of Kaukonen’s electric guitar. Grace executes some sustained vocal notes that add to the ambiance. On “Eskimo Blue Day” the band exhibits some edgy folk/jazz elements with interesting timing. Jack Casady’s bass sustains the driving force and Hopkins’ piano adds a muscular prominence. This is a fuller studio aesthetic. The wry “A Song For All Seasons” resembles country honky-tonk. A brief (1 minute) instrumental leads into the explosive title song and album finale. Balin’s uplifting, anarchistic vocals are backed by an infectious rock groove. The familiarity of the chord structure and lyrical coherence (“…One generation got old, one generation got soul!”) is timeless.

Speakers Corner has done a superb job on the 180-gram vinyl re-mastering of Volunteers. The layered and often expansive acoustics are captured with potency and great attention to detail. The purity and unusual voices of Slick and Balin are woven together effortlessly. Kaukonen’s electric guitar is hard-edged, but not overly distorted by studio effects. The glossy gatefold jacket package is top-notch with the comical band photo on the front and the zany countercultural bits on the back. Of course, the iconic peanut butter and jelly inside panels are nostalgic and a firm reminder of the underground influence of Jefferson Airplane.

TrackList:
Side One: We Can Be Together; Good Shepherd; The Farm; Hey Frederick
Side Two: Turn My Life Down; Wooden Ships; Eskimo Blue Day; A Song For All Seasons; Meadowlands; Volunteers

Performers:
Grace Slick – organ, vocals; Marty Balin – vocals; Paul Kantner – guitar, vocals; Jorma Kaukonen – guitar, vocals; Jack Casady – bass; Spencer Dryden – drums; Nicky Hopkins – piano; Stephen Stills – Hammond organ; Jerry Garcia – pedal steel guitar; Joey Covington – percussion; David Crosby – vocals; Ace Of Cups (Mary Gannon; Marilyn Hunt; Diane Hursh; Denise Jewkes – vocals

—Robbie Gerson