Jefferson Airplane Turns 50, With A One-Time-Only Celebration

The psychedelic pioneers will mark their golden anniversary with a celebratory one-off tribute show—minus a few members.

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

It’s been a half-century since rock ’n’ roll ate some LSD and wrote the soundtrack to the psychedelic movement. This has been a summer of celebrations—what with the Grateful Dead’s final run of shows and, now, a one-time-only, star-studded event with another face-melting group, Jefferson Airplane.

Hailing from San Francisco, the Airplane formed in 1965 when founder Marty Balin turned a pizza joint into a club called the Matrix—and recruited Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen, who gave the band its name based on his own silly nickname: “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane.” After a few lineup changes, the iconic Grace Slick and bass maestro Jack Casady signed on, and the group exploded into commercial and countercultural success with their album Surrealistic Pillow, which featured the massive hit tracks “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” The band’s free-flowing live shows became synonymous with the San Francisco acid scene alongside another band, the Grateful Dead.

“To me, the Jefferson Airplane was the band that invented the San Francisco psychedelic style of that time,” said promoter Dave Frey, who worked to arrange a 50-year celebration of the band at his Lockn’ Festival on September 11 in Arrington, Virginia.

While not officially a reunion, Frey has founding member Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, who have been playing together as Hot Tuna since the late ’60s, curating an extended set of Airplane hits with a cross-generational cast of musicians, including Saturday Night Live guitarist GE Smith, Lake Street Drive’s Rachel Price, Grammy-winning producer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and more.

“I’m a fan. I actively pursued this because the Jefferson 50 is the other 50. The [Grateful] Dead 50 has gotten all the action because for whatever reason they were able to creatively stick it out,” Frey said excitedly.

Originally, he admits, the plan was to go full-on reunion, but the schedules couldn’t be worked out.

“Grace is very happily retired and wishes everybody the best,” Frey gushed. “She’s just the coolest ever. But she’s not gonna ever stand on a stage again.”

Kaukonen said was saddened by this, but understood. And that’s one of the main reasons this performance will be marked as a celebration, not an all-in reunion.

“Grace doesn’t sing at all anymore so the thought of a ‘reunion’ is really unthinkable, you know?” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate. I think Grace is one of the great voices of my generation, but that’s her choice and that’s just the way it is.”

Even for Kaukonen and Casady, it was almost a no-go.

“We got an offer to do the same show in San Francisco at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and Jack and I said ‘Well, that’s creepy.’ We just couldn’t do it, and we passed,” he noted, adding that fans shouldn’t expect this to be the start of a nostalgia trip. “It’s one and done, you know?”

Other former Airplane bandmates declined because of “creative issues,” another thing Kaukonen understands.

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“We want to treat all of our former bandmates with the greatest respect,” he said, admitting that even for him revisiting the past had some speed bumps. “Psychologically, it’s a hot-button issue because of a lot of stuff, but artistically we really think it’s gonna be fun because we have such non-Airplane people playing with us.”

Arguably, one of the most important factors was who would stand in for Slick’s legendary voice.

“There were some pretty interesting ideas,” Frey said. “The first suggestions for Grace’s place were Lady Gaga and Stevie Nicks, both who were big fans but have other stuff going on. Then we turned Jorma and Jack on to Rachel Price and Lake Street Drive, and now they’re huge fans of her.”

For Jack Casady, who is widely regarded as one of the best rock bassists of all time, joining Jefferson Airplane was a chance at freedom.

“I came out of Washington, D.C., playing in very rigid formats doing club work,” he explained with a laugh. “It was certainly not encouraged for you to write your own music. To find a band of completely nutty people from all kinds of influences of music, who let me try different approaches on the bass and different types of songwriting and directions on material, that’s what was great about that band.”

The melding of musical genres and open experimentation that Jefferson Airplane brought to the forefront would go on to form what is now widely held as the jam band sound, but their influence goes beyond that.

“To me one of the important legacies is the really indelible spirit, creatively speaking, that the Airplane always had,” Kaukonen mused. This penchant for sonic exploration may have ultimately been a thorn in their commercial success. “We were really a daring band in a lot of ways. We were absolutely unafraid to take chances. We had ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to Love’ that got us into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but every other album after that had no radio hits because they were just too damn long.”

Luckily, even with just two smash hits, Jefferson Airplane is still a household name, even if they don’t have quite the financial success of contemporaries like the Grateful Dead’s commercial empire.

“One of the mistakes that we didn’t make is we didn’t let go of our catalog or our publishing,” Kaukonen claimed, laughing. “We made a lot of mistakes, and if you had a year or two we could talk about them, but one of the things that we didn’t do is we never let go of that stuff. The catalog still exists as an entity. I mean, it’s not like the Eagles’ catalog of hits where we can send our grandchildren to college with it—and I don’t mean that in a demeaning way—it’s just not like that. But stuff is still working for us.”

To be sure, the band still enjoys a large fan base, one that regularly comes to see Hot Tuna and the other members’ projects, such as Jefferson Starship. It’s not something that goes unnoticed by Kaukonen.

“When I look back on it, Jack and I owe the Airplane a whole debt of gratitude for a lot of things, not the least of which is to make us visible so that we could do our own thing for the rest of our lives,” he admitted. But he was also clear that what they do in Hot Tuna, and what would happen at the celebratory show, is not the same thing that the Jefferson Airplane did. “In my opinion a lot of some of the stuff that the Airplane did best, at the peak of our playing career, is the stuff we did live. And that stuff is impossible to replicate. It was definitely a product of the moment on many levels.”

While the times may have changed, both physically and psychedelically, in a way that prohibits replicating the experience of a Jefferson Airplane concert, Kaukonen and Casady are both excited for their celebratory showcase at Lockn’.

“We look at it like it’s an opportunity to use some of this material with a different cast of characters and have some fun with it,” Casady stated, but he was also clear about it marking a moment in time. “It’s a one-shot deal.”