"I don't believe anyone else writes music like me," says Kantner, who turned 73 this week. Alluding to the Jefferson catalog following 1970's Blows Against the Empire, he says, "My sci-fi songs are of a desire to explore new dimensions, seek unknown goals, with a bit of chaos and anarchy thrown in for good measure. Those who think of them as 'escape' songs should consider them as an escape to, not escape from."
His protest songs with Jefferson Airplane included "We Can Be Together," "Volunteers," and the folksy "Martha." But Kantner does not see himself as a true political writer. He says his style was epitomized by the difference between Berkeley and San Francisco, his home base, in the '60s.
The Berkeley vibe, to Kantner, was often negative, "largely concentrated on standing up on a soapbox and complaining about everything that they perceived as bad." But San Francisco counterculture "focused more on highlighting people, ideas, and other such parts of our lives that were good and uplifting. There were places of beauty like the ocean and the beach, the Redwood Forest, San Francisco itself and all it encompasses, and, delightfully, my own favorite place to play in the world: outdoors at Speedway Meadows, or Golden Gate Park on a sunny afternoon." Kantner sees some of his favorites, such as "Won't You Try," as sweet vehicles to take people into areas of unexplored, potentially delightful perception.
"Fairness, social good, justice, and the like are all just a real part of the life around us, something that we can get caught up in and expand upon," Kantner says. "And let us not forget the gut-level simplicity of it all: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll."
It was complex psychedelic rock, bathed in folk, noise (Airplane), prog-rock (Starship), and a singular mix of voices, male (Marty Balin) and female (Signe Toly Anderson and the wild Grace Slick, who penned the psilocybin-laced "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love"). Kantner says it was all in the name of "civil rights, gay-rights progress, the pot lobby, ecological reforms, prison reforms, sexual freedom, taking better care of the poor and the elderly, the free-speech movement, and let's go all the way back to the ban-the-bomb movement of the '50s, for a start."
Kantner ascribes the folk overlay, and the importance of the female voice, to an influence from his youth: Ronnie Gilbert's band the Weavers, with its social concerns, as well as its dedication to the labor movement. "Needless to say, along with that ideal, the inclusion of a dynamic and strong, intellectually superior, and ever-so-powerful female vocalist - 'girl singer,' we called her then - was incremental in my starting a band." In Anderson, Slick, and other female Airplane/Starship singers, including Darby Gould, Diana Mangano, and now "the ever-so-exciting Cathy Richardson," Kantner says he has found dedicated, powerful singers who do "my heart - and my band - proud."
The present tour focuses on the four elements, represented by music from earlier albums such as Dragonfly (air), Red Octopus (water), Earth, and Spitfire (fire). Kantner, however, refuses to sit still, working on music about Mary Magdalene and her various adventures, "from the Holy Land to the plains of Carthage to the mountains of Gaul, et al. I am not that prolific, though. I take my time with the songs I write, and rarely plan anything more than a short time in advance. What comes usually comes of its own accord and, as such, can often be a pleasant surprise."
With Paul Kantner, surprise has always been his best weapon.
8 p.m. Friday at Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore.
Tickets: $30-$50. Information: 610-649-8389 or www.ardmoremusic.com.