Old Fashioned Folk Fry with Hot Tuna

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Kaukonen plays so telepathically with Casady that it only SOUNDS like theyre sharing a single pair of hands.
These pages have consistently explored (some might say "beaten to death") the on- and off-ramps between jazz and rock, jazz and funk, jazz and reggae, jazz and other electric music, but rarely if ever the connection between jazz and another form of music, folk.

Folk music seems like jazz in one way: It's almost too easy to leave open-ended the debate, "What IS it?" One possible definition that doesn't really answer the question: Folk music is music played mainly with traditional, acoustic instruments, music that is listened to by folks. It cannot truly be that simple...can it?

Lifelong friends Jorma Kaukonen (guitar and vocals) and Jack Casady (bass) have been playing music together since the 1950s. They were founding members of Jefferson Airplane, leaders among the first wave of psychedelic rock bands to blast off from the US West Coast in the early 1960s. Their contributions — especially Casady's Bolero bass that ushers in "White Rabbit" on little cat feet, and Kaukonen's acoustic guitar instrumental "Embryonic Journey" — construct essential parts of the Airplane carriage.

Devotees of American roots music like blues, spirituals, Dixieland and traditional songs — for our purposes, American folk music — Casady and Kaukonen played occasional gigs, while serving in the Airplane, as a folk-rock sideband they called Hot Tuna. As the early 1970s turned into the mid-70s, the mettle in Jefferson Airplane slowly twisted, shaping rock rabble-rousers into pop chart-toppers Jefferson Starship. Hot Tuna became the pair's primary gig. (Much like how the Modern Jazz Quartet grew from brief mid-concert sets by John Lewis, Milt Jackson, and the rhythm section, sets designed to give the Dizzy Gillespie horn section fifteen to twenty minutes to catch their collective breath.)

In late 2004, Eagle Records unveiled several Hot Tuna live sets, filling out three previously released recordings with new bonus tracks. Kaukonen on acoustic guitar and vocals and Casady on bass sound a joyous noise like few musical pairs can. In their hands, these songs momentously swing, songs told in traditionals, spirituals, ragtime shimmies and blues, songs about whiskey, guns, women, murder, prison and freedom.

Come to think of it, there's not too much more to write about, is there?

Hot Tuna
Live at Sweetwater

Recorded live with no overdubs in 1992 at Sweetwater — a Mill Valley (CA) venue that still thrives — this set features Jorma (guitar, dobro, pedal steel, vocals) and Casady (bass) with Michael Falzarano and Pete Sears on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and vocals, plus guests Bob Weir (Grateful Dead) and Maria Muldaur. (One of music's great unknown yeomen, Sears contributed to Rod Stewart's classic Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells A Story albums, plus recordings by Jefferson Starship, Rusted Root, Gov't Mule and others.)

Previously unreleased performances now supplementing the original 1992 release include "I Know You Rider," "True Religion," "That's Alright Mama" (Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup) and "Been So Long."

Like a great pianist, Jorma's hands make one acoustic guitar sound like an orchestra — his "left hand" strums the rhythm and sets the chords while his "right hand" layers in solo riffs and gentle fills. His technique adorns in splendid acoustic jewelry such classics as the opening "Whinin' Boy Blues" (Jelly Roll Morton) and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" — their sentiments and tunes as relevant today as they were decades ago and will most likely remain for decades to come, too.

Jorma honors ragtime country blues guitar icon Rev. Gary Davis with reverent readings of Davis' hymn-like "Great Change" and "I Belong to the Band."

They also whip out more than the obscure, such as Jorma's solo "Embryonic Journey" and a jackboot stomp through "Maggie's Farm" that snarls with all the murderous contempt of Bob Dylan's seething original, dragging Bob Weir (Grateful Dead) through the carnage, kicking and screaming on lead vocals and guitar.

The level of musicianship is evident not just from Jorma's pedal steel in "Bank Robber" — which shivers, whispers, and sighs — but from his very introduction to this tune: "This is kind of a reggae song. The first version I heard was a punk rock version. So we sort of turned it into an Appalachian mountain folk song..." (ed. note: As the Clash, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones reworked this as "Bank Robber / Robber Dub," ultimately released on "Black Market Clash").

"Praise the Lord and Pass the Snakes" spits and writhes with Jorma's famous electric guitar, a toothsome psychedelic buzzsaw, to close this first Sweetwater set.

Hot Tuna
Live at Sweetwater Two

Recorded one year later (1993), Two also brings Jorma and Casady together with Falzarano and Sears, Weir and Muldaur, plus guests Happy Traum, saxophonist Kieth Corssanon and a gutbucket bassist listed as Bobaloo. Someone not credited rolls out barrelhouse piano.

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