‘The New Guard’: Jefferson Starship covers the past, nods to the future

This incarnation of Jefferson Starship, fronted by Cathy Richardson, is coming to Tucson. (Submitted)

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

When Cathy Richardson was growing up in Burr Ridge, Illinois, one of her favorite bands was Jefferson Starship. Now she’s fronting the act, anchoring the role made famous by Grace Slick.

“Never in a million years did I dream that I’d be in the band,” Richardson says. 

This incarnation of Jefferson Starship will visit the Fox Tucson Theatre on Saturday, September 17. A singer/guitarist, Richardson will be joined by original member David Freiberg, drummer Donny Baldwin (whose Jefferson Starship roots go back to 1982), keyboardist Chris Smith (who joined in 1998) and guitarist Jude Gold (who jumped on board in 2012).

Richardson joined in 2008 after founding member Paul Kantner saw her perform with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Playing Joplin came naturally. She starred in “Love, Janis” in Tucson and Phoenix in 2006/2007.

When Kantner recruited her for Jefferson Starship, he handed her a stack of songs to “brush up on.” They were whittled down to 20 or 30, for which Richardson printed the lyrics and put them in a book. 

The songs were from the early years of Jefferson Airplane. 

“When Paul was in the band, we didn’t do anything past 1979 in the show,” she says. 

“I wasn’t as familiar with all the Jefferson Airplane stuff. 

“I understood the gig of standing in the shoes of a legend and waiting for people to compare me to her. I was crazy or brave, as Melissa Etheridge said.”

In June 1984, Kantner, the last remaining member, left the band over artistic differences.

Later that year, Kantner sued, claiming he was owed money and to prevent the remaining members from using the name Jefferson Starship. The following March it was settled, with Kantner receiving money, but the name Jefferson Starship became the property of Slick (51%) and Bill Thompson (49%). 

All involved agreed to not use the name “Jefferson” going forward. That’s when just Starship was born with Slick, who left in 1988. She joined Kantner’s reformed Jefferson Airplane for an album and tour in 1989.

Kantner dubbed the band Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation in January 1992. After Kantner died in 2016, his iteration folded the 1980s hits into the set. 

“People love those songs for better or for worse,” she says. “They lose their minds when we play ‘Jane,’ ‘Find Your Way Back.’ Right now, our set is just the hits with a couple new songs thrown in from the new record. There are so many different fans of the different eras. We feel we have to represent all of them. People say, ‘Holy cow. We didn’t know they had all of these hits.’” 

Kantner’s death also brought on new music, including the EP “Mother of the Sun” and the single “It’s About Time.” 

“When Paul passed away and we were bequeathed the band, the powers that be said to make new music. Take the name and go forward with it,” she says. 

“We got together at David Freiberg’s home studio and sat around in the circle, jamming and singing. I would go to sleep at night and all these ideas would be running through my head.”

Out of those sessions came the roots of “Mother of the Sun.” 

“I thought we really had something,” she says. “It has the social justice message. It’s current. It’s about the societal problems we all have. Why are we still making the same mistakes over and over again.”

She played songs for Slick, and she was moved by it. 

“She said, ‘This is great,’” she recalls. “‘This sounds like Jefferson Airplane. It could be old. It could be new.’ I told her we were working on a new record and maybe she could help us write. She sent a few pages of lyrics, which turned into ‘It’s About Time.’

“We’re the new guard. We want to play new songs but touch on where we came from.”

Jefferson Starship

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 17

WHERE: Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress Street, Tucson

COST: Tickets start at $45

INFO: foxtucson.com