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
bass player for the Jefferson Airplane, and Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist for the same band, would frequently jam into the night
in their hotel rooms after the Airplane had finished their set during the crazy days of the late Sixties. The two were boyhood friends years before they joined the band, and every time they would stay up to jam,
they wouldn’t play any Airplane tunes, but would instead play the long lost American classics they grew up on: blues,
ragtime romps, and jazz. Cassidy and Kaukonen eventually decided to play in public
under the moniker Hot Tuna as a side project from the Jefferson Airplane and as a way to relax and have fun on stage in a
less demanding light.
“band” played all electric covers of their favorite forgotten tunes and frequently included “guests”
Marty Balin and other members of the Jefferson Airplane. Hot Tuna even began
opening shows for their other band. Eventually, in late 1968, the twosome decided
to record their covers, but made the switch to acoustic instruments for the album and recorded it live in front of an audience
at a weeklong stay at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, California. They picked
the ten best performances and released their debut album, calling it “Hot Tuna.”
The album is
an amazing tribute with just Kaukonen, Cassidy, and an occasional harmonica player.
They don’t go the Zeppelin route and plug in…they don’t go the Hendrix route and go crazy…they
don’t even go the Dead route and jam on forever and ever…Hot Tuna just covers the songs as they were written,
sticking to the original arrangement. Kaukonen finger picking style is astounding,
and his pure approach while singing is welcoming. Cassidy too, plays absolutely
picture perfect bass, all the more difficult without the foundation of a drummer. Yes,
an album’s worth of old acoustic blues covers isn’t exactly inline with everyone’s tastes, but for any roots
rock fans that haven’t heard this, you are missing out!
The album can
be broken down into four categories: Slow Blues, Faster Slow Blues, Country Blues
Originals, and Religious Blues. We’ll start with…
Blues: “Hesitation Blues” is a perfect title. It
is a leisurely, relaxing, traditional romp: magnetic and a great album opener. Jorma
picks up his vocal performance towards the end of the song and really gets into it.
“How Long Blues” is a much slower, Slow Blues…still forceful, but more
thoughtful. “Don’t You Leave Me Here” and “Winin’
Boy Blues” each from Jelly Roll Morton, have his more bouncy, humorous style.
Slow Blues: “Know You Rider” is animated, spirited and just a blast to listen to. “Uncle Sam Blues” adds a fine harmonica to the
acoustic foray, and an accidental broken glass from an audience member that became a trademark at all Hot Tuna shows. The lyrics are anti-draft with lines like “Well now I’m gonna do some
fightin’, well, no one knows what for.” The bonus tracks offer two
more Faster Slow Blues, with “Candy Man” (which isn’t one of the better songs
on the album) and “Come Back Baby” (which is). The latter
tune, written by Lightnin’ Hopkins is one of my favorites mostly because the ridiculously unique harmonica played by
the perfectly named Will Scarlett.
Blues Originals: Kaukonen wrote each of these more backwoods, country-sounding tunes, that clearly stand out from
the covers. Unfortunately, “New Song (For the Morning)”
and “Belly Shadow” just lack the bite of the covers and while neither is bad, they aren’t really
that great. “Mann’s Fate” is so much better. It is a rousing instrumental that can hang with, or even better, every tune on the
album. The track has a distinct Old World feel to it, and the speed, sincerity,
and performance are awe-inspiring.
Blues: “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” courtesy
of Reverend Gary Davis, kicks the Grateful Dead’s version of the song’s ass, and I love the Dead. Moody, spooky, and dark, this is just wicked. You feel like
this was made in the 1930s during the Dust Bowls of the Depression, or in Europe during the Black Plague…just compelling. Rev. Davis’s “Oh Lord, Search My Heart” isn’t nearly
as memorable, but it still rolls in all the right places. As a result of the
bonus material, the good Reverend also contributes the fast paced, dynamic “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,”
which rivals “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” in being the best tune here. Kaukonen pens his own Religious Blues with “True Religion” heard
here from the bonus tracks. It too is one of the best songs on the album, with
its hopeless feel, and loud strumming (I’m not sure how he was able to strum those chords so loud without breaking some
And there you have it…seventy minutes of
blues/roots rock heaven. These songs are performed as pure as when they were
written and this record is unjustly overlooked. Maybe it was because it came
out the same year as Led Zeppelin…maybe it was just because every track on the album sounds similar. Whatever the reason for its snub, Hot Tuna’s debut album is an unspoiled tribute to American music
and just a great performance.