Hot Tuna is/was Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, the lead guitarist and bass player who broke off from the Jefferson Airplane in 1970 to pursue other interests, originally in acoustic blues. Their first album, recorded live in Berkeley, has been reissued with bonus cuts and sounds better than ever. The heart of the album consists of traditional blues songs with updated arrangements and numbers by Rev. Gary Davis, Kaukonen’s first musical hero.
“Uncle Sam Blues” is one of the traditional blues songs covered on the album. For a while after the album came out, live performances of the song produced a safety hazard. The liner notes on the reissue recall:
The hipper bar owners knew it was coming. At a precise point at any given Hot Tuna performance, a minute into “Uncle Sam Blues,” the glasses would hit the floor. Beer glasses, shot glasses, wine or water — it didn’t matter. Crash! Splatter! Bring out the brooms.
Why? Because that’s the way it happened on the album version of “Uncle Sam Blues,” of course, when the sound of a glass breaking in the background was caught on all the open microphones and made it intact onto the analog recording.
Kaukonen is still going strong at age 70. He celebrated his seventieth birthday with Hot Tuna performing in Tel Aviv last year. A hot time was had by all.
Several years ago the New York Times had a wonderful profile of Kaukonen featuring his guitar camp, the Fur Peace Ranch. (“A fur piece” is how long Faulkner’s heroine Lena has to walk in Light in August; I take it that Kaukonen is a fan of good literature as well as good music.) The 2002 Times article by Woody Hochswender is “Picking the blues in the Ohio hills.”
I saw Hot Tuna — Kaukonen and Casady together with Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin — at the Cedar Cultural Center on the West Bank in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. It was an intensely beautiful show. Having played together as long as they have, Kaukonen and Casady have a telepathic yin-yang thing going that you can’t miss.
I thought the highlight of that first Hot Tuna album was Kaukonen’s composition “Mann’s Fate.” On
the second the third (electric) album, it was another Kaukonen composition — “Water Song” — that stood out as well. In it he strings together some simple motifs whose sum is greater than the parts. This is a healing song, from the DVD Strings and Frets.