Anytime we lose someone who entertained us and impacted our lives, we naturally think back to things that stood out about them. When I heard that Paul Kantner died January 28, I immediately thought of the first Junefest concert presented by KKLZ radio in 1993. The headliners that day were The Allman Brothers Band, with support from Stephen Stills, Eddie Money and Jefferson Starship.
In selecting Starship from a list of available acts, station executives were assured the band would perform a set of its 1980s hits, with a lineup that included Mickey Thomas as lead singer. This meant blockbuster radio songs like “Jane” and “We Built This City.” Apparently, no one pointed out that Thomas wasn’t actually in the band at the time, and that the group instead featured psychedelic-era members Kantner, Marty Balin, Jack Casady and Papa John Creach, with the outstanding Darby Gould filling Grace Slick’s vocal role. Those of us on the KKLZ staff quickly surmised that if the group actually did play any of its MTV stuff, it would sound a bit strange without a powerhouse male lead singer or Craig Chaquico, whose guitar riffs had been memorized by so many radio listeners.
Before Starship took the stage I was hustled into a backstage trailer for on-air interviews. Balin was cordial enough in explaining a bit of the history of the group and how it evolved into the lineup that would appear that day. Casady was even more so, discussing the band’s determination to remain relevant and true to its original message. Kantner wanted no part of the conversation until I asked Casady about Gould’s role and how she’d been chosen as the modern-day female vocalist. He then chimed in briefly with compliments about her talent and an assurance that she was exactly the right person for that job.
On a cold, nasty day in Las Vegas (it still stands as the coldest June 5 here ever), we knew the jig was up with regard to any of the “hit” Starship material as soon as the group opened with “She Has Funny Cars” from 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow. That kicked off a hot set of vintage Airplane tunes including “Crown of Creation” and “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” and the pre-Thomas Starship standout “Ride the Tiger.” And what better closing number than “Volunteers,” especially when the audience was enduring Woodstock-like storm conditions?
The Starship lifted off from Vegas a couple hours after hitting its last notes at Junefest, to played another outdoor concert that night in LA, as part of the Troubadours of Folk tour. I’ll always cherish the wonderful, wind-blown 40 minutes we got before they left, as the Vegas crowd basked in some Haight-Ashbury heritage at its best.