St. Paul’s Red House Records is a boon to the state and the nation, as was rightly acknowledged by the label’s November release Red House 25: A Silver Anniversary Retrospective. The set commemorated an almost unimaginable achievement: Red House hasn’t merely survived as an independent folk and blues label, it’s prevailed. A stable of award-winning artists have sustained the house founders Greg Brown and Bob Feldman put on the international map.
Red House’s presence is further heightened with this month’s releases by renowned singer/guitarslingers Jorma Kaukonen and Guy Davis. One’s a lemon. The other’s sweet as a peach.
Jorma Kaukonen wasn’t just seminal San Francisco rock band Jefferson Airplane’s lead guitarist. His articulate finger-picking helped distinguish the Airplane at the vanguard of a wave that had label execs used to marketing pop music scrambling to sign every scruffy-looking band that stayed in tune long enough to make a demo. In the Airplane’s heyday, Kaukonen and the Airplane’s lead singer, soul music devotee Marty Balin, launched the legendary spin-off Hot Tuna. By the time they got around to recording, Balin had either been nosed out or lost interest, leaving Kaukonen and bass-playing wizard Jack Casady to claim what fast became a fanatical cult following.
Kaukonen, having released the solo recordings Blue Country Heart (Columbia) and Stars In My Crown (Red House), suggests with his new record River of Time that he has finally run out of gas. The album opens with a half-baked retread of “Been So Long”, the bittersweet blistering gem from Hot Tuna’s First Pull Up, Then Pull Down. From there, it’s further downhill. “Cracks in the Finish,” another original, can barely be called that, aping Eric Clapton copping Robert Johnson. Kaukonen, to no avail, dips in his accustomed well of historic blues writers, including Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis (why he never got sued for plagiarizing Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” as the Airplane’s “Star Track” is a damned good question). For Jorma Kaukonen performing acoustic at the top of his game, dig up the first, self-titled Hot Tuna album. Only desperately die-hard fans should bother with River of Time.
Guy Davis, on the other hand, delivers the goods with Sweetheart Like You. He’s been carrying the cultural torch, holding the fire high since 1995’s Stomp Down Rider (Red House), and is in fine shape here. Davis plays stinging guitar, hellified harp, and sings his hind-parts off. It’s difficult to think of anyone covering Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” at all, much less as successfully as Davis does. He plows the ground with authentic grit and, instead of trying to stand toe-to-toe with the immortal great’s hollering vocal, gives the Willie-Dixon-penned classic a gutsy, subdued interpretation nobody saw coming. Davis covers Bob Dylan with the title tune: never mind the pretentious liner notes, listen to the song and enjoy yourself. More highlights: Muddy’s “Can’t Be Satisfied,” the rollicking original “Slow Motion Daddy,” and Big Joe Williams’s “Baby, Please Don’t Go,”—which has been covered from here to kingdom come, but not like this. Davis brings new life to the world-worn lament about a man begging his woman to stay. All in all, Sweetheart Like You kills.
Pass on Jorma Kaukonen’s River of Time. Pick up Guy Davis’s Sweetheart Like You. American music doesn’t have a lot to say for itself these days. It’d be in still sorrier shape were it not for Red House Records.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.