Jefferson Starship has been to the moon and back, metaphorically speaking. This year, their music will once again carry them all over the world, from Pennsylvania to Paris.

The San Francisco-bred band is celebrating its 50th anniversary here in 2024, playing dates with the Marshall Tucker Band, but also diverse stage mates like Deep Purple. That might seem like a strange combo at first glance, but as it turns out, the heavier side of their catalog can easily build that bridge. The psychedelic side of their Jefferson Airplane days opens other portals. Their numerous radio hits gave them plenty of ammo to spend the summer of 2023 touring with Bret Michaels and Night Ranger as part of the inaugural Parti-Gras tour.

In a nutshell, they're as busy as they ever were, something which is surprising to vocalist and guitarist David Freiberg, a founding member who joined the band in 1974. Though he left in the mid-'80s, he's been back with the group for nearly 20 years since the early 2000s. "I certainly never thought I'd be 85 and playing in a rock and roll band," he laughs during a conversation with UCR. "But geez, here it is and I am doing that. As far as I can tell, I'm having as much fun as I ever did."

Talking with Freiberg is as infectious as watching his energy on stage with the band. He spoke with Ultimate Classic Rock Nights host Matt Wardlaw recently to spend some time looking back at the group's incredible history.

There was so much going on the San Francisco music scene in the '60s. When did you first start to realize the incredible melting pot of music that was happening around you?
I left Quicksilver Messenger Service and I just left because I wasn’t doing anything more there. It turned into Dino Valenti’s backup band, kind of. That’s nothing against Dino’s songwriting or anything like that, it’s just there wasn’t room for anybody else. I had no idea what I was going to do. I fell in with [Grateful Dead drummer] Mickey Hart, who lived down the road from me in the same town. He had an old horse ranch and built a studio in the barn. I started hanging out there and working on the album that he was doing. David Crosby was making his solo album down at Wally Heider’s. I was down there a lot. There was this thing that he called the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Graham Nash, I mean, they’d all be in the studio with a guitar or whatever. I think I even had my viola down there once. When everybody was playing there, everything was miked. The stereo two track was always running. It became known as the PERRO tapes. That was kind of an underground bootleg thing that’s out there somewhere. It was the beginning of a lot of things. Jerry was writing “Loser” for his debut solo album, so everybody was playing that. That’s where I learned that song. It was definitely inter-pollinated, I guess. [Laughs]

Listen to Jerry Garcia and David Crosby Perform 'Loser'

How did you meet the Grateful Dead to begin with?
Well, I met Jerry when I was a folk singer. He was playing kind of bluegrass band stuff in North Beach. He was playing banjo, guitar and stuff. I think he was kind of based in Palo Alto and I was playing in North Beach, San Francisco. I’d run across him all of the time. When the Grateful Dead and all of the other bands started, we’d go to each other’s gigs. I’d be at a Quicksilver gig and look down front and there’s Jerry Garcia, watching us. We all did that. It was a real scene. That was really fun.

What did you dig about Jerry as a player?
He was always in the moment and always had a smile on his face. He’d find something off the wall to play that you wouldn’t think would work with it and it always seemed to work. I really liked him as a friend. He was fun just to hang around with, for me. When it got all big and famous, everything kind of got a little strange. I mean, I moved into this house and I’ve been in the same house for over 50 years. When I moved in here, Jerry and Mountain Girl lived right down the street. I’d go down there and have coffee with them.

READ MORE: Top 10 Jefferson Airplane Songs

Very much like the Grateful Dead, through all the different phases of the band, starting with Jefferson Airplane, the group was always evolving.
Even though it might have sounded a whole lot different. [Laughs] I didn’t actually make it to the Starship part, but we seem to have kept a few of them in our set now -- and Donny [Baldwin, Jefferson Starship’s current drummer] was in the Starship. But I would have gotten out anyway, because I wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t really belong there. They needed a keyboard player that really knew how to play keyboards and that wasn’t me. I just wrote to write songs, that’s the only reason I played keyboards. I mean, I could get some nice things that were catchy playing organ quite a bit. Because I know where the notes are. [Laughs] You can get something very emotional just turning the Leslie on and using the fist to slide it up the keyboard. If you do that at the right time, it all works. I played it a lot and I practiced it a lot. But when Peter Wolf came in around the time of Nuclear Furniture, he sat down and started playing. He said, “Let me show you something.” He was just amazingly good. The guy was a child prodigy at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. He had the chops and he was a great musician. He wrote some really nice songs. I knew it was time for me to get out and everybody else seemed to agree that was left. [Laughs] I don’t know, it was hard. Because you know, I love those people and I still do. But I like “Sara” and I didn’t mind “We Built This City.” I thought it was catchy and it was good stuff. But nobody in the band was writing the songs anymore. It all changed. They were just picking up songs from people that did nothing but write songs.

Watch Starship's Video For 'We Built This City'

Which was very common in the '80s, but it was a weird time for heritage bands because of that.
Yeah, and they [handled it] very well. But it seemed to fall apart because of a bunch of egos and stuff by the end of it, seeing it from the outside anyway. It ended up with the name being abandoned, more or less. Nobody really owned it, until Paul [Kantner] started working again [under the name].

Before you left Jefferson Starship the first time, how much were you surprised by all of the evolution the band went through? You guys went through a lot as a band, just in the '70s alone.
Oh yeah, it changed with pretty much every album almost. But yeah, it was good. Marty [Balin] wrote some great things in there and he brought in some great songs from other people too. There was a bunch of good stuff.

READ MORE: Top 10 Marty Balin Songs

As a writer and a player, you always want to be evolving in some form. So it's really not that surprising when you look at it through that lens.
You know, I kind of wish I wouldn’t [have left the group]. I’m very happy where I am now. In fact, if anything had changed, I wouldn’t be here. But I miss playing with Paul. Paul was my oldest friend that I had. He and I were hanging out way before [there was a group] while we were still just plucking guitars and banjos. I was in jail when Jefferson Airplane started. Paul came and visited me in jail. He was really my friend. When I was doing Mickey Hart’s album, there was this one song called “Blind John,” about a blind guitar player. I heard some harmonies there and asked Paul and Grace [Slick] if they wanted to come in and sing on it. We had everybody else and hadn’t gotten anybody from the Airplane yet, so we figured we’d better do it. I could hear the three-part harmony working out, so they came in and it worked out very nicely. Grace liked it so much that I think she played the piano part on it. Then the Tower of Power horns [played] on the end of it. We finished up Mickey’s album and then Marty left the Airplane. They were going to go out to promote the Long John Silver album. They asked me if I wanted to come join and sing harmonies with them. Because you’ve got to have two guys singing with a girl -- they loved the music of the Weavers -- and Peter, Paul & Mary. But I said, “Are you kidding? Of course, I’ll go! I’m not doing anything else. Mickey’s finished his record, what am I going to do?”

READ MORE: Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane Dies At 74

Hearing you talk about Paul, he was special.
There was nobody like Paul. Nobody can really replace him. It was kind of intellectual in a way, because the lyrics would have little quotes from [a number of sources]. It could be from a science fiction novel, poetry -- you don't know. But yet, it all worked. If he worked on it enough, it had something that nothing else had ever had, that I could see. Cathy [Richardson, the current vocalist for Jefferson Starship] was a big Paul fan. It was her idea when we started performing “Connection” from the Nuclear Furniture album. It was kind of about, why can’t we all get along? Cathy knew every word and Paul had to dig it out. He’d written so many songs, he couldn’t remember it. We were playing Tel Aviv and he thought it would be a good idea to play it. We actually worked it up and played it on two days notice. I had sung on it on the record, but I didn’t remember that much of it. Cathy knew it better than Paul did. We performed it in Tel Aviv and that was [guitarist] Jude Gold’s second gig with Jefferson Starship.

No pressure.
He handled it so well. When Jude joined the band, all of the sudden, something happened. Somehow, the five of us didn’t want to let it go when Paul passed away. We just had to figure out a way to play together. I believe it was at Paul’s funeral, China [Kantner, Paul’s daughter] said, “Why don’t you guys just keep on playing?” Grace wasn’t there, but then Grace also thought it was a great idea. I think she had the power to let us do that.

Listen to Jefferson Starship's 'Connection'

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