WHAT A long, strange trip it's been for the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Starship and Santana. Each group crawled out of the cosmic soup brewing in San Francisco in the mid '60s. Since then they've somehow managed to buck the odds, outlast most of the competition and upset all bets that they would never survive the last decade, to say nothing of the '80s.
Despite personnel changes, the Dead and Santana have retained much of their original sound and following. The Starship (nee Airplane) hasn't been so lucky. First launched by Paul Kantner in 1974, the Starship, at its highest altitudes, was boosted by Kantner's sci-fi visions, Grace Slick's hard-bitten soprano and Mary Balin's tempering influence as both a singer and lyricist. At its nadir -- its last album "Freedom At Point Zero" comes close -- the band opted for mindless lyrics and a tried pastiche of heavy metal riffs.
When Slick and Balin jettisoned the Starship, new members Mickey Thomas and Aynsley Dunbar changed the complexion of the band. Dunbar is an asset -- a solid rock drummer with a heavy foot but also with the discretion to use it tastefully. Thomas, on the other hand, is as smooth a vocalist as he is bland. Plugged into any heavy metal band, Thomas would probably be as successful as he is working with the Starship. He's the kind of rock journeyman who guarantees a consistent but generally uninspired sound.
Fortunately, Grace Slick's return bolsters Thomas' role considerably on the Starship's new album, "Modern Times" (Grunt BZL1-3848). Not that Thomas doesn't bring the band a certain commerical appeal. His vocals on the rockers "Find Your Way Back" and "Save Your Love" are tailor-made for FM playlists. But it's Slick's small contribution, as well as Craig Chaquico's searing guitar lines, that give the album the little personality it has.
Thomas isn't entirely to blame. Part of the problem lies in the lyrics Jennifer Sears has provided him. As on the last album, the Starship leans heavily on her songs and again they fail to support the weight. The one exception is "Stranger," the only duet on a album that generally relegates Slick to the role of backup vocalist, primarily because she hadn't returned to the band when it was recorded.
As for Kantner, he's obviously fed up with the critical reaction the band has received over the years. On "Stairway to Cleveland," he even goes so far as to write:
Rolling Stone Village Voice
picky picky picky
said we can't sing can't play can't write anyway
new name old name carry on with such silly people everywhere
While it's true the Starship has seen its fair share of cheap shots -- some people have yet to forgive Grace Slick for replacing the Airplane's original vocalist Signe Anderson -- you don't need to split hairs to discover the band's current shortcomings.
The Grateful Dead's intentions are simple, and their new two-record set, "Reckoning" (Arista A2L-8604), recorded live last fall in New York and San Francisco, is fun if not particularly memorable. If the Dead hadn't released this set, surely a few of their enterprising fans would have. The album captures the band in an unusual context, performing acoustic versions of 16 songs divided between traditional tunes and Dead standards.
The traditional tunes are particularly satisfying, a throwback to the Dead's early days and Jerry Garcia's immersion in bluegrass music. Elizabeth Cotten's "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie" allows for some gentle fingerpicking.
The Dead have gotten a lot a mileage out of some of their own songs, available on several different collections.
As expected, Garcia and Bob Weir dominate the album, although Brent Mydland adds a few nice touches on the piano and, believe it or not, the harpsichord. The other members of the band will move closer to the fore when the electric sessions from the same concerts are released in June.
Like Garcia, Devadip Carlos Santana has pursued individual projects while maintaining ties with the band that first brought him prominence. In fact, the commercial success of his work with Santana has paved the way for more experimental recordings. The new Santana album, while nowhere as venturesome as Devadip's last recording, "The Swing of Delight," still crackles occasionally with Latin fire.
"Zebop!" (Columbia; FC 37158) includes a couple of mildly diverting tunes by J.J. Cale and Cat Stevens, but the instrumental "Tales of Kilimanjaro" and the chant "American Gypsy" burn brightest. Santana's percussionists, led by stalwart Armando Peraza, are so tuned into Devadip's sustained guitar lines that it's easy to overlook the fact that this album breaks no new ground.