Sunday, March 08, 2009

Songs of freedom, songs of revelation...

I’ve always done a pretty decent job keeping track of Jefferson Starship — in whatever configuration it’s taken. These past dozen or more years, though, have been particularly challenging. [Note: When I say “Jefferson Starship,” I’m referring to any music produced under the auspices of the great Paul Kantner.]

In the 1970s, I saw the “classic” band — Kantner, Slick, Balin, Freiberg, et a1. — play live a half-dozen times. And in the past few years, I’ve seen Kantner’s continually morphing group perform everywhere from House of Blues in Hollywood (1995), to Knott’s Berry Farm (1998), to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (2000), to seaside at Avila Beach (2005) — featuring, in various rotations, Marty Balin, Darby Gould, Diana Mangano, Jack Casady, Prairie Prince, David Freiberg, and bunches of others, but always with Kantner, the heart of the group.

I’ve kept up with Jefferson Starship’s sparse CD output over recent years, too — all the live CDs from independent labels and their fantastic 1998 studio release, Windows of Heaven.

But somehow, Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, a new studio CD released last September, had slipped right past me. I found a lone copy last weekend while skimming through the music bins at Borders. The shame is I lost six months that I could have spent listening to and savoring it. But what the hell…

This CD is a folk collection, mostly acoustic covers, making it unlike any earlier album from the Jefferson Family. And it’s the most politically radical product to come from these people since maybe Airplane’s Volunteers in 1969, the sticker on the outside of the CD reading, “In the spirit of Jefferson Airplane, a clarion call of social conscience.” In fact, Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty opens with the first chords of “We Can Be Together/Volunteers” before launching into the Weavers’ “Wasn’t That a Time.” It raised a lump in my throat when I first heard it. These songs are anthems to rebellion, and I think they arrive at a very good time.

There are 18 tracks listed on this CD, only one of them a full original, Kantner’s “On the Threshold of Fire.” (There’s an Easter egg hidden on the album, too — a Sunfighter outtake from 1971 called “Surprise, Surprise,” featuring Grace Slick.) Even the covers, though, are not quite covers, each of them given such a unique spin that JS might arguably lay claim to them as their own. For example, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” are cleverly blended together here and sung beautifully by newcomer Cathy Richardson. Likewise, Phil Ochs’ iconic “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” again with Richardson, boasts a new verse and a whole new “sound” for the song.

There are songs here by Woody Guthrie, Dino Valenti, Richard Farina, Richard Thompson, and Bob Dylan (this new version of “The Chimes of Freedom” is one of the most rousing I’ve ever heard). Plus there are some traditional old Irish and Spanish tunes. There’s a LOT more, too much to stuff into this little review. Just listen for yourself.

More than forty years after Surrealistic Pillow, it astounds me that so much vital music can still come from this group of musicians. Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty is one of the best new CDs I’ve heard in this decade.

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1 Comments:

At 2:22 AM, Anonymous Tom Ender said...

I loved Volunteers (especially "We Can Be Together") and have put this CD on my "buy list." I think I liked being 18 more than 58, though 58 ain't too bad. Many of us are still outlaws. Thanks for the heads-up.

 

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