live at the New Orleans House in September 1969 in Berkeley,
California, Hot Tuna's self-titled debut quickly established the band
as a popular recording act, reaching #30 in the charts the following
year. Over the course of their New Orleans House gigs, considerably
more material was taped as well. Much of it's issued for the first time
on this 68-minute CD, which consists entirely of previously unreleased
recordings. Even the six songs on this disc that also appear on Hot Tuna are entirely different
Though quite a
bit different from what Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady were playing in
Jefferson Airplane in terms of both wattage and repertoire, Hot Tuna's
music wouldn't have come as a surprise to those who'd seen and known
Jorma in his pre-Airplane days. Before plugging into the San Francisco
rock scene, he'd honed his chops on folk and blues for years, sometimes
playing with Janis Joplin before she joined Big Brother & the
Holding Company. While he took some of the blues, folk, and gospel
material from his formative years into the Airplane's live and
studio work, Hot Tuna gave him a chance to delve into the more
traditionally-based music that had inspired him during the folk revival.
At the New Orleans House, with help from Will Scarlette on harmonica, Kaukonen and Casady played classics that had originated with and been popularized by greats like Jelly Roll Morton, Reverend Gary Davis, and Lightnin' Hopkins. As Jorma takes care to note today, however, "Every song that came out on the first Hot Tuna record, with the exception of the new songs that I wrote, I learned from Ian Buchanan." A finger-style guitar player, Buchanan (who died in 1982) had been crucial to mentoring both Kaukonen and John Hammond when they were attending Antioch College in Ohio.
As for why Hot Tuna decided to record their first album in concert, Jorma continues, "What we were doing, I think we did it better live. In some respects, that music is better done live anyway, just 'cause that's the nature of the beast. A lot of the stuff that I think would have worked for Jack and myself is interaction. Obviously you have to know how to play the songs, and stuff like that. But we tend to go places, and sometimes you lose a little bit of that when you work in the studio. And it was cheaper too!"
Why the New Orleans House in particular? "I think the folks at RCA that were actually doing the recording looked around at some of the different club venues in San Francisco, and just found that that was easy for them to work with," he adds. "I remember it as being sort of a large-ish room, a square, not a lot of stuff that got in the way and whatnot. It was sort of easy to set up gear and just record. I doubt if it held 500 people." Philip Elwood's San Francisco Examiner review of one of the shows confirms that "dozens of people [were trying] to cram their way into the already overflowing club," while at curbside stood "a moving van full of electronic gear, closed circuit TV, and scowling engineers."
Hot Tuna was taped in fine fidelity, in part due to the conscientiousness of the band themselves. "Jack and I have always been tone freaks, sometimes more successfully than others," observes Jorma. "The guys that we were working with on that recording didn't have transducers and pickups for acoustic guitars, and all that stuff that we have today. What I had that made that work for me—I still have it, it's in my shop right now—was a clamp around the guitar. It had a gooseneck on it, and at the end of the gooseneck was a Sennheiser condenser mic. So I could wander around the stage plugged into my microphone, and not have to stay on mic. I think Jack was playing through this odd jazz amp that he had called a Versatone, a great-sounding amp. Obviously the scowling engineers out in the moving van did a great job too."
While it might have seemed like quite a transition for Kaukonen and Casady to alternate loud huge rock concerts—they'd only played Woodstock with the Airplane about a month before—with much lower-key Hot Tuna gigs, as Jorma points out, "I never quit playing acoustic guitar. Janis and I spent a lot of time playing little venues like that. It felt like it was a comfortable, natural thing to do. It didn't make me schizophrenic that most of the music we did at the time was extremely electric."
Of the thirteen songs on this CD, six—"Death Don't Have No Mercy," "Winin' Boy Blues," "Uncle Sam Blues," "I Know You Rider," "Don't You Leave Me Here," and "How Long Blues"—would be included on the first Hot Tuna album, though the versions on this CD are selected from different performances than the ones used on that LP. These half-dozen tunes alone are indicative of some of Hot Tuna's strongest influences, with "Death Don't Have No Mercy" having originated with Reverend Gary Davis; "Winin' Boy Blues" and "Don't You Leave Me Here" with Jelly Roll Morton; and "How Long Blues" with early blues pianist Leroy Carr.
As for "Uncle Sam Blues," Jorma remembers learning it from a record by Snooks Eaglin. The traditional number "I Know You Rider" was revived in the 1960s and early 1970s by innumerable folk and rock artists, including the Byrds, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead. "One of the things we joke about at gigs is, if anybody knows who wrote this song, let me know!" he exclaims.
Among the other songs on this disc, "Come Back Baby" will be familiar to Jefferson Airplane fans as the band played it live with Jorma on vocals (a 1967 studio outtake appearing on the Airplane box set Jefferson Airplane Loves You), though he'd performed it in his folk days before joining the band. "I just re-recorded the song on an album I did a couple years ago called Stars in My Crown, and at that time I credited it to Lightnin' Hopkins, 'cause I did hear a version on a Lightnin' record," explains Kaukonen. "But I don't think I learned it from a Lightnin' record. I think I might have learned it from Dave Van Ronk, or one of those guys in New York. It's hard to say. A lot of people have done the song; a lot of people have claimed writership of it. The original version by Lightnin' Hopkins, chord-change wise, is very similar to the one that I did. So I will credit the source of that to Lightnin', and the elder folk musicians that I knew in New York City in 1960."
As for other sources, Jorma credits "Keep on Truckin'" to Blind Boy Fuller, noting again that he actually learned it from Ian Buchanan. "True Religion" was also learned from Buchanan, "and once again, I don't know anybody who knows who wrote that song. It's just a great tune. I certainly adapted it in my own idiosyncratic way, but I did not write it." He did write "Sea Child," heard here in a ten-minute version, while Reverend Gary Davis was the source for "Keep Our Lamps Trimmed and Burning" and "Candy Man." "That'll Never Happen No More," a Blind Blake song, was also learned from Buchanan.
Kaukonen and Casady have continued to play in Hot Tuna and other projects for the past four decades, often revisiting some of the very songs on this CD. "Since most of the stuff that I do is not music that's culturally dated by time, if there's a song that I like, I don't care how long I've played it," Jorma declares. "It's just like a part of my life, and then I'm comfortable going there. When you've been around as long as Jack and I have, and you go to do a show, obviously I would like to focus on newer material. And I don't play songs that I don't like to play. But sometimes audiences come to sort of relive that soundtrack of your life experience. Not always, but sometimes. If that's what's going on, then I'm more than happy to lay part of that soundtrack on them so that they will maybe take a little time and listen to one of my new songs." And you can keep up with his numerous ongoing projects at both jormakaukonen.com and hottuna.com. – Richie Unterberger
Jorma Kaukonen dedicates this CD to the memory of Ian Buchanan.
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