Hot Tuna fans might just have an accident on themselves. The band’s released its first electric studio album out in what in feels like forever (actually, 20 years). Steady As She Goes (Red House Records) is Hot Tuna’s strongest since 70s classic Burgers (Grunt/RCA) featuring the tour-de-force stoner staple “Sea Child,” which seemed to be on the radio every time you turned around.
Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady were the blues-rock nucleus fueling seminal 1960s San Francisco Sound purveyors Jefferson Airplane. Airplane, the hardest working band in rock outside the Grateful Dead, still didn’t gig enough to suit Kaukonen and Casady’s insatiable appetite for gigging. Thus Hot Tuna, just about the longest-lasting band from that era except for Santana. Hot Tuna incarnations have have seen Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady joined at different times by a slew of musicians. Sadly, one lineup never really got out of the gate. There’s no recording of the first group with Marty Balin, Joey Covington, and Peter Kaukonen. Too bad. They ripped it up, opening for the Airplane.
This time around, on board are Skoota Warner (drums) and Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin) with Larry Campbell (pedal steel, Hammond organ, violin, backup vocals) and Teresa Williams (backup vocals). Pretty tight outfit. Campell also pitched in on the songwriting, all of which is superior.
Steady As She Goes should do pretty damned good things for the band and for Red House Records. Successful as both are, there’s always room for the kind of profile a record as strong as this is likely to raise.
Kaukonen’s highly inventive guitar work rocks tough and articulate, clean as a cat’s whiskers. He still sings with that slightly strange, quintessentially laid-back voice, except it’s stronger now. He’s always been a fine lyricist, waxing wry with an existential bent. His melodies, even mean as a snake, have warmed over the years with a bluegrass influence. Casady is Casady, one of the most unorthodox and profoundly gifted bassists ever known to rock music. They’ve always been a fascinating pair of musical partners from the early hallmark “Spare Chaynge.”
Anyone lucky enough to ever be in an Airplane or Hot Tuna dressing room has seen how telepathically these two guys play together. On stage, their interplay has always been dynamic, galvanizing. Their work together here is no less fascinating. For good measure, Warner, Mitterhoff, Campbell, and Williams walked in the studio ready to seriously work, no doubt about it. Old-time fans will delight in their absolute glory, returned, as it were, to those thrilling days of yesteryear. New fans will flip out, too. Hell, folk who think Hot Tuna is something served on toast will take one listen and start combing through the band’s catalog. Steady As She Goes is that good.
“Angel of Darkness” leads and has widespread airplay stamped all over it, a nasty-strutting, snake-hipped, balls-to-the-walls gem no one in the world should be surprised Jorma Kaukonen came up with. Think the charging drive of “Last Wall of the Castle” meets the fluid grace of “New Song for the Morning” or “Been So Long.” Campell co-wrote. There is no hearing this cut and not wanting to hear it again.
“Easy Now Revisited,” reprised from the album The Phosphorescent Rat, is a snazzy take on the power-rock orginal. Stripped down, tightened up. Jorma Kaukonen is crazy about historic acoustic blues icon Blind Rev. Gary Davis. So much so, he took Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and made of it “Star Track” off Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation. He and Casady recorded “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” on Hot Tuna’s debut. Here, he selects Davis’s “Children of Zion” and “Mama, Let Me Lay It On You.” Kaukonen cut his teeth on Luther Allison and you can hear it tightening fiery, lightening-strike solos and sensual rhythm.
Bottom line, Hot Tuna still hits it. Ever heard it said, “They don’t make music like that anymore?” Well, fact is, they do. Listen at Hot Tuna’s Steady As She Goes.