PAUL DOWELL and his crew work hard for their money. When the members of Jefferson Starship step onto the stage at the Merriweather Post Pavilion tonight, they will do so confident that their sound and lights are in perfect operating condition, that their instruments are in good working order and that the only thing they have to worry about is the music itself.

Paul Dowell guarantees it.

Dowell, who grew up in the Washington area and played in a couple of rock bands in the mid-'60s, has been the Starship's chief roadie for 15 years now, since it was a fledgling Bay Area band calling itself Jefferson Airplane. "I'd played bass with the Hangmen they had a big regional hit here with 'What a Girl Can't Do' in 1965 and then played in the Dolphin with Nils Lofgren," Dowell recalls.

"I came out to San Francisco in 1967 and found a friend from Washington, Jack Casady, playing with Airplane. He invited me to stay with him for the summer, and there was a phenomenon occurring out there with all the bands and the psychedelic revolution. Oh boy, what a good year! 'Sgt. Pepper' and 'Surrealistic Pillow . . .' It was a real special time in San Francisco. The city was real supportive of its artistic idiosyncrasies."

Dowell tried to put a few bands together until the spring of 1968, when Casady and another Washingtonian-turned-Jeffersonian, bassist Jorma Kaukonen, asked him to be the band's crew along with Casady's brother, Chick. "At that point it was a real steady salary. And I understood the thing from the musicians' level. At that time there weren't too many people working on the road who understood what the musicians were saying or what they wanted. As the years have gone by, I seem to have picked up a lot of basic electronics. You end up combining an artistic thing with the physics of it all."

In 1968, being a roadie for the Airplane meant loading and unloading a 14-foot van, "packed full" with not only the amplifiers and instruments but also the ubiquitous light show of the era--a big screen for behind the band, a set of projectors and slides, all the color wheels. "Those were the days when everybody had a couple of twin reverbs," Dowell says.

That was then, and if some have found the Starship heavier than the old Airplane, there's proof. Though it's considered only a medium-sized rock 'n' roll tour, 70,000 pounds of sound and light equipment travels from show to show in two tractor-trailer trucks (some bands have two crews leapfrogging from gig to gig). Dowell now supervises a crew of 18: there are four departments--trucking, lighting, sound and band gear--"each with its own head guy. I'm the production manager and I oversee things. But I work," he adds. "I don't sit in a chair or anything. And I'm there from the first rigging call to when the last truck's loaded."

THE PROCESS of prepping a stage and then tearing it all down after the show is as tightly scripted as a two-minute football drill. "We have a schedule that's adhered to intensely," Dowell says. "Our standard call is 9 in the morning to do the rigging, hanging chains down from the ceiling so you can support the sound and lights; right now, we're just flying the lighting. That usually takes an hour and we unload the trucks at 10, lights at 11 and band gear about 11:30. It's usually all set up by about 2 o'clock and ready to go. At that point, the various systems are checked out. We try to get a 4 o'clock sound check, or at least make that available to the band."

There are many stories of rock 'n' roll bands with road crews that are almost good enough to serve as an opening act, and Dowell certainly has his roots as a rock 'n' roller. But these days he just plays a 25-year-old acoustic guitar and lets the crew take care of the sound check playing. "We don't have a strong group of musicians right now. We really need a drummer to complete our roadie band. They fool around about a half hour every day, nothing serious, just to check out the equipment."

Once everything is set up, the road crew, which has been served a serviceable breakfast and lunch, breaks for its major meal of the day, dinner, usually served at the concert site. The Starship contract has a 10-page technical rider with specific instructions on food, not just for the band, but for the crew as well. "We pay particular attention to that," Dowell says, "because the work is so demanding that it's imperative you eat regularly and that it be good-quality food.

Dowell, tour manager Bill Laudner and business manager Bill Thompson spend a couple of weeks preparing for the tour. While the road crew is rehearsing set-ups, Dowell is calling ahead to all the concert stops "to make sure they understand our requirements for the show--stage size, electric power requirements, manpower requirements, food requirements, the obvious things. Some people get ridiculous, but our contract rider is pretty straightforward."

During the show, some of the crew can relax, while the rest are handling technical duties. Dowell himself is like an emergency-room doctor, sensitive to any potential problem, ready to fix what can be fixed and generally acting like a rock hawk. Within minutes of the last number, the breakdown begins and it's usually a two- or-three hour takeout. "We finish by 1 or 1:30, so it's a long day," Dowell says.

ONCE the trucks are loaded and secured, they head off for the next concert site. In the pretour planning, an itinerary has been set up specifically so the trucks can drive through the night and early morning and make it to the next stop in time for a set-up. "It can't be much more than 10 or 12 hours from when you load out to when you load in," Dowell says. "That limits how far the trucks can travel at 50 miles an hour."

The drivers work for an independent trucker who has been doing the Starship tours since 1975. "It's a real friendship thing," Dowell says. "He also does trucking for the Grateful Dead--those are his two accounts. And he's never missed a show."

The rest of the road crew travels in its own sleeper-bus. When the Starship tours, it usually aims for four to five shows a week, and the usual pattern is two days on, one day off, two days on. Traveling by bus allows the roadies to catch up on sleep without having to worry about getting to and from airports and hotels. On their days off, they tend to do more sleeping, shopping, "partying. Depends on the town," says Dowell, who had dinner with his parents last night. "Sometimes we go to good restaurants, movies, museums, see friends or relatives, catch a show . . ."

Some bands party more than others, Dowell says, admitting that "maturity" can affect that spirit. " Bassist Dave Frieberg is 45. I'm 40 as is Grace Slick; Paul Kantner is 41 . It's something you approach differently than 10 years ago.

Road manager Laudner is the only one with more years than Dowell's 15; he's been with the band since 1966. Several of the current band members haven't been there half as long. "The crew changes," Dowell says. "People go off and raise families; and the band doesn't work enough to be able to support yourself by being a road person and working for just them. The economics are such that there's no one on full-time salary all the time.

Dowell, who will be getting married at the end of this tour, has occasionally been a roadie for others. Last summer, he worked in Europe with Neil Young for two months. "Nils Lofgren was on that tour, and his roadies and my old friends Tim and John Foster were on the crew and recommended me. The Starship wasn't doing anything then, so they called me up and I went.

"For me, and for a lot of people who've been doing it for a while, the reasons we started doing it changed after a while. Originally the ideas were--well, to be very frank--the drugs and the women, that whole 'glamor of show business' thing. But as the years went by, that became less important. There are a lot of professionals out there now who have families and are doing this to earn a living. And remember, when it started, there were no role models; there was no big-time touring at that point. Now it's a pretty big business, there are even budgets to follow."