A folk musician prior to his tenure in Jefferson Airplane, Paul Kantner grew up on the topical folk songs of groups like The Almanac Singers and The Weavers right through the early protest songs of Bob Dylan. Well aware of the power of music to inspire change, Kantner's lyrics often reflected an anti-authoritarian stance and a utopian vision of escape, mixed with a keen interest in science fiction. Following the Airplane's heyday, these themes would continue to fuel Kantner's side projects, his work in Jefferson Starship and beyond. In 1991, at a time when MTV's Unplugged series had become increasingly popular, Kantner recruited two Starship alumni, keyboardist Tim Gorman and guitar slinger Slick Aguilar, to form a trio dubbed Wooden Ships. With Kantner on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, they primarily performed in intimate club settings, something Kantner hadn't much pursued since his pre-Airplane days on the Bay Area folk club circuit.
Two of the most intimate performances occurred on October 26, 1991 in the tiny back room of McCabes in Santa Monica, one of the oldest guitar shops in the Los Angeles area. With a capacity of only 150, these shows found Kantner exploring both old and new material in an instrumentally stripped down context before extremely attentive audiences. Also of significant contextual note, these gigs occurred the evening following the tragic death of Bill Graham, which Kantner addresses toward the end of the set presented here, the second of two performances that evening.
Following a humorous opening monologue and Kantner's introduction of his accompanists, the late show gets underway. Kantner get things off to a very interesting start with a strong performance of "Sketches Of China," a song originally recorded for the excellent, but largely overlooked 1973 album, Baron Von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun. Despite being stripped down instrumentally, the song loses little of its anthemic feel, thanks in large part to Gorman, whose skillful piano work provides much of the setting here.
Following this impressive warmup exercise, Kantner and pals ease into a lovely reading of "Wooden Ships," the first of several numbers addressing utopian escapist fantasies, one of Kantner's ongoing themes. While Kantner's songwriting collaboration with David Crosby and Stephen Stills addresses escapism while remaining on the planet, for the next number he heads into the depths of interstellar space for a condensed, yet quite remarkable performance of his 1970s sci-fi epic, "Blows Against The Empire." The three key components are wonderfully performed, beginning with a forceful reading of "Hi Jack," which then drifts gently into "Have You Seen The Stars Tonight" and concludes with a stratospheric "Starship" that encourages Gorman and Aguilar to flex their musical muscles.
Gorman's piano work also greatly enhances "Shadowlands" a new Kantner invocation addressing political, social and sexual commitment. This would surface nearly a decade later, when it became one of the standout tracks on the 1999 Jefferson Starship comeback album, Windows of Heaven. Next, Gorman begins providing sensitive synth swells as Kantner recites "Holocausto Optimista" a poem conveying both anguish and determination written by Guatemalan revolutionary Otto Rene Castille. Another new number follows, "I'm On Fire," which would also surface many years later on the Windows of Heaven album. Despite the lack of Grace Slick's penetrating vocal, which would be a key factor on the 1999 studio recording, this much earlier read is quite compelling.
Another rare treat from the Blows Against The Empire album surfaces next. Kantner's voice is showing signs of strain but this detracts little from the lighthearted folk song, "The Baby Tree." Then Kantner's idealistic fervor returns in another inspired three-piece sequence that also begins with a poetry reading. It begins with his recitation of "For The Good Of All," another penetrating Castille poem, which then segues directly into "America," the anthem Kantner contributed to the Jefferson Airplane reunion project two years prior, before concluding with a vibrant call to arms with "Volunteers."
An interesting non-musical sequence immediately follows as Kantner addresses the death of Bill Graham, which tragically occurred the previous night. He expresses little grief, but instead conveys how Graham's life was a testament to the capacity of one individual and how he lives on through his accomplishments. Kantner also relays Jerry Garcia's reaction to the news, having received a phone call from him earlier that day. Whether it was preplanned or not, the closing numbers couldn't be more appropriate, as Kantner, Gorman and Aguilar tackle Fred Neil's "The Other Side Of This Life," before concluding the set with a delightfully delirious take on the 1920s-era folk song, "Show Me The Way To Go Home."
-Written by Alan Bershaw