Since taking flight in 1965 in its original incarnation as Jefferson Airplane, the band Jefferson Starship has created one of the most distinctive song catalogs in rock music history. Starting with psychedelic-era classics such as “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” through 1970s rockers like “Jane” and melodic diversions like “Miracles,” on through their 1980s chart-toppers “We Built This City” and “Sara,” the band was led by the distinctively powerful vocals of Grace Slick.
When Slick retired from the band in the late ’90s, the band fell into several conflicting legal battles over the ownership of its name and its musical direction. But in 2008, sole original member David Freiberg hired Cathy Richardson — who had played legendary rock diva Janis Joplin in “Love, Janis” off-Broadway — to handle the female lead vocals, resulting in a remarkable renaissance for the group.
The band will perform Saturday night at The Rose in Pasadena, one of 70 annual dates the band plays nationwide.
As Richardson points out, the band is in the midst of a creative resurgence that is reuniting them with past members while creating their first new music in decades.
“We’re making a new CD, and so far it’s an EP with six songs, just because we’re anxious to get something out,” says Richardson, speaking from her home in the Chicago suburbs. “We’re excited by how it’s coming together, because Jefferson Starship’s original bassist Pete Sears is playing on it and about to join us on the road soon.
“We’re also thrilled because we played a new song called ‘What Are We Waiting For’ for Grace and she cried because she was so proud of it,” adds Richardson. “It sounded classic and current and I said ‘you can get in on this, send me some lyrics.’ She got excited and with the new women’s movement happening, we wrote a real women power anthem, saying it’s time for women to run things, give us a chance.”
Richardson and Slick have had a positive relationship throughout her decade-long tenure with the band, with Slick inviting Richardson to sing in her place when the band received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. She had made a name for herself previously with her 2001 turn as Joplin off-Broadway and subsequent national tour, and by singing with Joplin’s original band Big Brother and the Holding Co. on their recent national tours as well.
“Yes, I had gigantic shoes to fill in taking over for Grace, but I’m just crazy enough to think that I can do it,” says Richardson. “I had experience stepping into the shoes of a legend, and I knew that criticism is inevitable. I’m not that person and am never going to be. But the fact that Grace herself approved of what I’m doing and said I’m one of her favorite singers in the world, I’m honored.
“Janis was fire and Grace is ice. She had that intensity coming through her eyes a lot,” adds Richardson. “If you looked at her in the front row you might pee in your pants, she’s so intense. There’s a different weirdness with Grace that I love because I’m kind of weird too. Singing without a guitar you have to figure out what to do with yourself, I got more into stalking the stage interacting with people, eating their food or sipping their drink during shows. [Former Jefferson Starship member Paul Kantner] said ‘You know all that weird stuff you do? Do more.’ It’s like a playground, it’s fun.”
That sense of fun leads to dynamic shows that include a surprising number of twentysomethings in the audience at shows like the band’s last Rose performance to a packed house last August. Seeing Richardson command the stage alongside the 80-year-old Freiberg as he rips guitar solos and belts out intense lead vocals of his own is an impressive sight to behold.
“I definitely think that kids today are going back to the old classics, and the reason the classics don’t die, is there was something magic about them and now it’s so hard to sift through all that’s out there now,” says Richardson. “I watched the Grammys the other night and I was wondering who many of them were. A lot of times we get a multigenerational crowd, but young people are bringing their grandfathers rather than vice versa. It really can keep going forever as long as there are people who want to see this music live and really see people playing real instruments.”
Jefferson Starship performs at 9 p.m. Saturday at The Rose, 245 E. Green St., Pasadena. Call (888) 645-5006 or visit wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com