Back in the heady days of the 1960s San Francisco Bay Area rock scene, few bands had the cachet of Jefferson Airplane, the acid-rock band that turned out the classic hits “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.”
Along with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane effectively provided the soundtrack of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” era of the late 1960s, and even when the band broke up in 1972 and morphed into Jefferson Starship, it didn’t miss a beat, turning out 10 gold- or platinum-selling albums and hits like “Miracles,” “Count on Me,” and “Jane” over the next decade.
Jefferson Starship plays the Hawaii Theatre on Saturday, effectively carrying the mantel for both bands. It’s not Rice-A-Roni, but it is another serving of a “San Francisco Treat” for Hawaii rock fans, with Airplane founding members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady bringing their act Hot Tuna here last year.
Jefferson Starship multi-instrumentalist and singer David Freiberg is a carryover from both bands, having played with Kaukonen, Casady, and Airplane stalwarts Paul Kantner and Grace Slick with Jefferson Airplane, and then with vocalist Marty Balin, Kantner and Slick with Jefferson Starship. At age 81, he’s “likely the oldest classic-rock musician of his generation still touring regularly,” according to Rolling Stone magazine.
Freiberg himself is somewhat flabbergasted at his longevity in the business.
“I didn’t add up all the gigs we did last year, but it’s probably 70 or 80,” he said in a phone call from the Bay Area, where he has continued to live all these years. “It is absolutely amazing. Actually, I’m having a great time.”
FREIBERG MADE his initial mark on the rock scene by co-founding Quicksilver Messenger Service, another seminal San Francisco rock band. That experience gives him a pleasant memory of Hawaii, when the band went to the North Shore to do some recording.
“Quicksilver rented an old Boy Scout camp in the middle of the canefields. It didn’t have any electricity, and yet we decided it would be the perfect place to build a studio,” he said with a laugh. “We got the basics for two albums, I think one of them was ‘What About Me,’ out of that.
“About eight months after that, Marty Balin left Jefferson Airplane, and Paul and Grace asked me to take his place — as if anybody could take Marty Balin’s place — but I could be in the band and sing. That’s how that happened.”
Freiberg actually has a background in classical music, starting out on string instruments as a youngster in his native Cincinnati. “They gave me a viola and I fell in love with it and actually started practicing,” he said. “I was in the string quartet and the all-state orchestra.”
After moving to the Bay Area in the early 1960s, he got inspired by folk musician Pete Seeger. “I saw him play and experienced what it was like to get everyone singing,” he said. “I thought ‘What a marvelous thing to do to have everyone sing along with you,’ so I started taking that up seriously — just in time for the folk music boom to stop. But then, there were the Beatles, and so we plugged in.”
Freiberg would go on to play with every San Francisco rock musician of note, including members of the Grateful Dead. Playing in clubs like The Fillmore, it was an era of communal experience of music.
“We were all playing in the same places,” he said. “You’d look out into the audience, and there’s Jerry Garcia, and Paul Kantner, and then I’d be watching them play. Everyone pretty much went to all the shows.”
Freiberg was one of the low-flying members of Jefferson Airplane, if such a thing were possible in that drug-infused era. Freiberg was in fact coming off a prison sentence for marijuana possession when he first joined Jefferson Airplane, but other members of the band became much better known for heavy consumption of various forms of intoxicants. Creative tensions also began to divide the band, leading to the creation of Jefferson Starship, led by Kantner and Slick, and joined by Freiberg, a longtime friend of Kantner’s, and eventually Balin, who took over as male lead.
Freiberg tended to keep a low profile during those days, rarely in the spotlight except when he sang in his bright tenor. His chief contribution as a songwriter was as the original writer of “Jane,” which has been used on videogames and films. “It was about an old girlfriend, whose name wasn’t really Jane,” Freiberg said.
True to his reputation as one of the nicest guys in the rock business, Freiberg gives credit to co-writers Jim McPherson, Kantner and guitarist Craig Chaquico for arranging it.
“I just liked to play in a band and do whatever was necessary,” he said. “If it was singing out in front, that was great. It was kind of like I took Marty’s gig (with Jefferson Airplane). Then Marty came back and joined Starship, so I thought. ‘I got plenty to do. I’m always going to be singing on everything.’”
WITH HIS role seen primarily as a backup musician, Freiberg was shooed out of the Jefferson Starship in the 1980s, but he was then invited back 20 years later. He carries no animosity over the falling out, describing the episode as “just life” and expressing gratitude over his current situation.
“The band we have now is the closest thing to a family unit I’ve felt in my whole life, in my existence as a musician” he said.
The current incarnation of Jefferson Starship, which includes Cathy Richardson on vocals, Chris Smith on keyboards, Jude Gold on guitar and Donny Baldwin on drums, was founded by Kantner in the 1990s.
Kantner died three years ago, but his family and Slick have given the current band their blessing, encouraging them to perform both Airplane and Starship hits. The band also has been working on new material, which is expected to be released on a new album in February, and is likely to include many of those tunes.
Those who remember the great songs of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship won’t be disappointed, Freiberg said, especially when they hear Richardson channel Slick’s distinctively powerful vocals.
“(Richardson) had two heroes when she was a kid,” Freiberg said. “One was Grace Slick and the other was the Wilson sisters from Heart. When she joined our band, she knew our entire catalog. She knew it just from listening to them. She’s an amazing singer.”
>> Where: Hawaii Theatre
>> When: 8 p.m. Saturday
>> Cost: $69.50-$89.50
>> Info: 528-0506, hawaiitheatre.com