Jefferson Starship has had plenty of turbulence since it took flight following Jefferson Airplane's crash landing in 1971.
The Airplane had been one of rock's greatest bands, and was San Francisco's most popular when the "Summer of Love" was proclaimed in the city's Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. The similarly free-spirited and politically tinged Starship picked up where the Airplane left off, soaring for a time on the wings of Grace Slick's and Marty Balin's vocals, and the group's choral harmonies.
But in the 1980s, with singer Mickey Thomas in tow, the band was blasted for churning out blatantly commercial hits that betrayed its countercultural origins.
Eventually, Slick left music and co-founder Paul Kantner left the band. He reformed a new Jefferson Starship in the early 1990s truer to his original idea.
"That whole Starship episode in the late '80s was like a bad dream," Kantner said recently from Chicago. "I figured the best thing I could do was dig the Starship out of the mud, polish her off and become Jefferson Starship again."
The band's current edition -- billed as "Jefferson (Airplane) Family Galactic Reunion," plays Seneca Niagara Casino's Bear's Den for two shows each today and Saturday. It includes Balin and longtime Slick replacement Diana Mangano, who grew up in Silver Creek.
The concert -- known to run more than four hours on single-show nights -- will open with back-to-back sets by Bay Area veterans Country Joe McDonald, formerly of Country Joe and the Fish, and onetime Grateful Dead member Tom Constanten.
The Starship will follow and include David Freiberg, another Jefferson alum best known for his work with Quicksilver Messenger Service. They will play songs mostly from the Airplane and early Starship songbook.
The tour took the band to Europe for 40 dates, where Kantner said it was "received quite well. People thought we were meaningful," he laughed. "I never do, but I'm not one to argue as a general rule."
Kantner said he hopes to have Slick, who now paints, record with the band again.
"I always kid her and say you sing a lot better than you paint, but she's not a bad painter," said Kantner. The onetime couple have a daughter, China.
Kantner and McDonald had never met before the tour, despite McDonald being from nearby Berkeley.
"I know very little about the Jefferson Airplane/Starship thing, but the tour is great," McDonald said recently from the group's tour bus outside of Pittsburgh. "The players that are in this band are world-class, and every night is a little bit different."
McDonald's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag" was one of the classic anti-Vietnam War songs. The Navy veteran has a new song, "Support Our Troops," that slams the Iraq War.
"The troops need to come home right now," said McDonald. "It was a mistake to send them. Bush is a lousy commander-in-chief, and he has lousy military advisers."
Kantner, who has also written his share of politically conscious songs, agrees.
"What's going on is great fodder for 'The Daily Show,' and for my own songs, but I am also horrified by the path and the direction the country has taken," he said.
Freiberg said he has been singing some Quicksilver songs and Jerry Garcia's "Loser" on the tour. His divergences in recent years included singing a solo tenor part, in German, for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
"I'm having as much fun performing as I've ever had in my life," Freiberg said.
For Constanten, performing in Western New York will be a homecoming of sorts. The keyboardist played in the Dead from 1968 to 1971, and then taught music at the University at Buffalo for a year beginning in 1974.
Constanten said the tour's improvisational nature reminds him of his days in the Dead, and his set would bring a "retrospective of Dead moments" plus new material.
"We're kind of like a bubbling and frothy time capsule from the '60s that's still alive and kicking," Constanten said. "That means we do a lot of old things, and also keep some new things in the fire."
"I'm just waiting for the Altamont Reunion," laughed Kantner, recalling the disastrous rock festival one year after Woodstock that featured the Airplane and the Rolling Stones.
WHO: Jefferson Starship with Country Joe McDonald
WHEN: 7 and 10 p.m. today and Saturday
WHERE: Bear's Den, Seneca Niagara Casino, 310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls
INFO: ,gari,9.5,10.5 278-4944