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Class ?

Main Category: Roots Rock
Also applicable: --------
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Hot Tuna fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Hot Tuna fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 11

Ye Olde Country Blues from Ye Young Frisco Hips? Sounds cool to me.


Track listing: 1) Hesitation Blues; 2) How Long Blues; 3) Uncle Sam Blues; 4) Don't You Leave Me Here; 5) Death Don't Have No Mercy; 6) Know You Rider; 7) Oh Lord Search My Heart; 8) Winin' Boy Blues; 9) New Song (For The Morning); 10) Mann's Fate; [BONUS TRACKS:] 11) Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning; 12) Candy Man; 13) True Religion; 14) Belly Shadow; 15) Come Back Baby.

Cream was originally formed as a band that would go back to its roots, but their first album turned out to be a blues-pop sellout. Hot Tuna, on the contrary, did not disappoint purists with their first release. Not only are the songs all covers (there are a couple tracks, plus a couple more bonuses on the CD edition, that are Kaukonen originals, but they are undistinguishable from the "old" material anyway), they're also all performed on acoustic and bass, with only Will Scarlett's harmonica to add to the mix. And to top it all, it was recorded live at the "New Orleans House" in Berkeley, in September 1969. Authenticity galore.

No doubt, many people will find this experience pretty boring. Blues tune after blues tune after blues tune, with just three instruments and one whiny voice and only occasional "disturbing" incidents like that glass crashing on the floor at the beginning of 'Uncle Sam's Blues', after which breaking glass at Hot Tuna gigs became a tradition. With a guy who's a pretty damn good, but not great, singer and player, and a great bassist who can't do that much in this particular setting (especially considering the crappy recording equipment). Certainly doesn't promise a lot of excitement.

But does provide! First of all, they're not exactly doing Chicago blues here. They dig into older, less formulaic, country blues things, songs that were written and perfected way before the invention of the electric guitar and thus were somewhat less scary and somewhat more playful by definition. Stuff that you can really only find on all these very very old records, with crackles and hisses and pops all over the place. In this way, Kaukonen and Casady are doing us a favour - reproducing some of the bestest "black American spirit" elements of days long gone by with acceptable sound quality. And even if they're both white American lads who never had a chance to live somewhere in the American South in the 20s and 30s, you can be sure they have a deep understanding of that spirit anyway.

Jorma has a special appeal on here. His playing is tasteful and gracious and displays a pretty cool acoustic pickin' technique, perhaps best demonstrated on the closing instrumental 'Mann's Fate'. And his singing - he doesn't even try to imitate the Black Man's voice, because he doesn't have the chords for it, but he never tries to "oversing" either, alternating between quiet whining and quiet mumbling, all in a very lightweight manner, sometimes bordering on humorous. He really owns this album, despite Jack's incessant trying to "catch up".

Material sources on here rely heavily on the Reverend Gary Davis and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as on purely "traditional" songs, and to me, their set seems to be organized in little "mood-based" subsets. They start off with a couple lazy summer-dayish numbers like 'Hesitation Blues' and 'How Long Blues'; then move into darker territory, with the anti-war protest 'Uncle Sam's Blues' (which you may hear - and see! - in a totally kick-ass electric version as performed in the Woodstock movie by the Hot Tuna "subsection" of the Airplane, just a month prior to the recording of this album, funny enough) and the shivery 'Death Don't Have No Mercy', which I actually like more than the definitive Grateful Dead interpretations of the song - because, unlike Jerry Fuckin' Garcia, Jorma actually stays in tune for all of the song; then roll into a lighter, near-comic section with songs like 'Know You Rider' and 'Winin' Boy Blues' (Jorma's personal anthem?); and finally wrap things up with the dreamy, almost "introspective" Kaukonen originals. 'Mann's Fate' is actually pretty close melodically to 'Star Trek' off Crown Of Creation, if you're curious - only without the vocals.

Then there are the bonus tracks which, I think, actually detract from the album... it's one thing sitting through forty minutes of acoustic blues and another thing sittin' through sixty of 'em. Besides, a few of these may be heard in electric versions on Hot Tuna's second album, so you're not losing much if you're scooping this up on vinyl. 'Belly Shadow' rules my world though.

Overall, a vastly underrated record anyway, as somehow Hot Tuna managed to escape the front row of the much-appraised late Sixties "roots revival" - probably because there's nothing "flashy" on the album. No "Encyclopaedia Americana" Band-like approach, no rock-country fusion a la Flying Burritos, nothing like that. Just a couple guys reviving old old tunes in a coffeehouse. But if you ask me, what they're doing here is just as deserving of appraisal, and as far as the critically hated "pretentiousness" thing goes, Hot Tuna is completely devoid of it (unless one assumes that consciously avoiding pretentiousness is pretentiousness in itself, but let's not get too paranoid). Hopefully, history will do 'em justice and reinstate the album as a heartfelt tribute to past American heroes that actually manages to improve on the original in some ways.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 11

If by "pulling up" they mean "plugging in", I don't even wanna KNOW what they mean by "pulling down".

Best song: JOHN'S OTHER

Track listing: 1) John's Other; 2) Candy Man; 3) Been So Long; 4) Want You To Know; 5) Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning; 6) Never Happen No More; 7) Come Back Baby.

Toto, we're going electric. With this second album, the band still has absolutely no wish to demonstrate to anybody that it's an independent creative ensemble, but at least it's something more than a hotel bedroom jam between Jack and Jorma. There's a real drummer involved (Sammy Piazza), and they're also bringing on the awesome violin capacities of Papa John Creach, their by-now colleague in the Airplane as well. Finally, Jorma gets plugged in, and now we not only bring some royalties into the torn pockets of our old country blues heroes, we also kick ass!

That wild jamming actually was part of the Airplane's regular set, but unless you're a fervent collector, you would only get a few minor hints on the Airplane's live records (basically, 'Rock Me Baby' on Pointed Head is Hot Tuna, only it moves along slowly and undecisively, unlike most of the tunes on here). If you ever wanted more of the same stuff, by all means grab on to this puppy. Three long jams and four shorter songs, all but two of them country blues covers again, slightly losing on subtlety but severely gaining in energy over the self-titled debut - and, just as well, recorded in some shitty old pub perversely called "The Chateau Liberte" for reasons that escape me... then again, they do praise the atmosphere of freedom reigning in that place. They also blame the sound quality in the liner notes, but I dunno, it all sounds pretty decent to me. I guess the recording equipment, at least, was top notch.

Papa John, of course, comes to the forefront at the very beginning - with an introductory jam called 'John's Other'. Whether it's John himself or his other who plays that rip-roaring violin, I don't really mind because it gets me into a good mood from the very start. Then Will Scarlett and Jorma take some time soloing, and when coupled with Casady's standard-quality basslines, you kind of get the whole picture in the very first few minutes. This is not exceptional music, and I guess Hot Tuna could experience some serious competition in that area by the early '70s (Seatrain, anybody?), but it's, well, as exceptional as far as unexceptional music is able to go, if you get my weird drift.

Some of the songs on here you actually can hear in acoustic versions among the bonus tracks to Hot Tuna: where 'Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning' and 'Come Back Baby' were relatively short and up-to-the-point, they are now extended into full-fledged jams, but I certainly don't mind - they're dark, somber, ominous, almost creepy, it makes a lot of sense to hold on to that mood and make it into a basis for something bigger. It's always a delight to follow the lines of either Papa John or Jorma, whether they be soloing or "dueling" with each other - and it's also nice to see Jorma's ever-growing skill with the guitar. It's often said by those who actually do know stuff about guitar playing that one's real playing talent is usually much more evident when playing acoustic guitar, where you can't get away with "simple" tricks like volume and/or special effects - and having seen Mr Kaukonen shine with his technique on Hot Tuna, it's an almost equal pleasure to see him be just as nimble with his electric-playing tricks. On 'Keep Your Lamps', he builds up the tension wonderfully, with Papa John capturing all the right moments and raising hell on his instrument in exactly the same places where Jorma is starting to "rip it up". The only problem is that the jams don't differ much from each other, with no specific, idiosyncratic mood for each one - but I guess demanding that would be demanding a bit too much. After all, it's just a bunch of people gathered together to have some good old-timey fun.

Jorma's only original, 'Been So Long', had been "doctored" with later guitar and vocal overdubs, apparently because he wanted it to soud like a new, self-contained original tune should - weird, because as a result, it's the only song on here that sounds messy! But that's a minor quibble. A major quibble would be that it's not that much of a good song, and the best thing about it is, again, Jorma's picking in the instrumental section. However, it does have that "dreamy", "foggy" atmosphere typical of most of his work, so at least he's being true to himself. I do prefer it ever so slightly when he's beeing a bit more lightweight, though - like pulling foolish faces (metaphorically speaking) on 'Candy Man' and Bo Carter's rarity 'Want You To Know'.

It's kinda fun to see Hot Tuna in such great shape and in such high spirit at the same time when the Jefferson Airplane was in such a hopeless state of disrepair - and kinda telling to see the active political stance of the Airplane fading away and the "music first" policy of Tuna towering high above it. I mean, you can almost feel the joy of musical freedom both Jorma and Jack are experiencing here. I guess my feeling of this feeling makes me overrate the final product, but I don't care - I had a lot of fun listening to it. Roll on Papa John!


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