Hot Tuna: Steady As She Goes
Steady As She Goes
Strange, the twists and turns that rock legacies take.
Jefferson Airplane, who had the most varied and creative original songs of any of the San Francisco hippie bands, as well as an awe-inspiring arsenal of vocal and instrumental talent, is viewed today as something of a dated guilty pleasure. That probably has a lot to do with the band’s slow, painful transformation into Starship, purveyors of 1980s Top 40 schlock like “We Built This City,” but also that – as history has defined rock – the powerful clarity of Marty Balin’s and Grace Slick’s vocals seem less “authentic” than the gravely, grittier kinds of voices that have endured.
On the other hand, Hot Tuna – a narrowly focused (on blues and folk) side project of (primarily) Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady – has achieved something like “elder statesman” status for its acoustic and electric roots music. Fans view the two as principled and accomplished players, loyal to tradition and a model for future jam bands and Americana explorers, like San Francisco brethren the Grateful Dead. This despite the fact – or maybe because of it – that Kaukonen’s monochromatically conversational voice often shows strains and struggles to convey emotion.
Steady As She Goes is Hot Tuna’s first studio album in over 20 years, and it comes after Kaukonen has established himself as one of America’s foremost guitar instructors – his Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp near Athens, Ohio, has an international following. This finds the duo, joined by mandolin player Barry and drummer Skoota Warner, reaching for an Americana comeback a la Levon Helm. The album was recorded at Helms’ Woodstock studio, with Larry Campbell producing (as he did on Kaukonen’s last solo album, River of Time, as well as on Helm’s comeback albums) and lending a hand on all sorts of instruments. The album has an overall electric orientation, although a polite one, with a couple predominately acoustic tunes.
What Hot Tuna has always done best – recasting traditional music through the lessons-learned wisdom of post-psychedelic-rock stars, in the process giving them life for a new generation – it continues to do very well here. There is impressively satisfying playing, like on Reverend Gary Davis’ “Children of Zion” and “Mama Let Me Lay It On You.” The album opens with mid-tempo rocker, “Angel of Darkness,” written by Kaukonen and Campbell,” that struggles to shift into overdrive, sounding a little staid until Teresa Williams’ harmony singing and Kaukonen’s piercing guitar give it a little forcefulness. And on “A Little Faster,” it seems clear Hot Tuna is trying to channel some of the early Jefferson Airplane’s (“It’s No Secret”) drive. A solid song, but it misses a certain oomph.
Kaukonen has also developed a taste for bittersweet folk-pop ballads, for better and worse. “Things That Might Have Been,” a reminiscence of him and his brother, has a appealing melody but also some clichéd lyrics (“In the garden of life/Nothing blooms on its own”). “Second Chances,” similar in tone, has really lovely acoustic and electric work.
Overall, Hot Tuna’s music on this album is affirming of its better qualities, but doesn’t break new ground. Is it too late for a full-fledged (or as close to it as possible) Airplane reunion? There’s a band that needs to reclaim its legacy while it still can.