Hot Tuna

TrackAlbum
CandymanFirst Pull Up, Then Pull Down
Death Don'’t Have No MercyHot Tuna
Easy NowThe Phosphorescent Rat
Hesitation BluesHot Tuna
Highway SongBurgers
Keep On TruckingBurgers
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And BurningFillmore: The Last Days
Let Us Get TogetherBurgers
Mann'’s FateHot Tuna
True ReligionBurgers

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Contributor: Rob Millis

It is a curious fact: those duos we have all been entertained by in pubs, restaurants, foyers of civic buildings, record stores – you name it – comprised of a guitarist and an electric bassist, all continue an idea that may or may not be 100% invented by Hot Tuna, yet certainly in the rock and pop, and folk/blues sectors, it is generally considered as such, given that they made the first notable use of the format. Electric bass guitar without drums was not a common sight; even in 1969 the instrument – invented by the great Leo Fender and unveiled in 1951 – was less than twenty years old.

Curious in two ways; for the fact that such a concise, self-contained combo (two guys, two instruments, a modest vocal PA, designed to fit the space, budget and licence provisions of venues unable to book a full band) should have grown out of the ballrooms and free festivals of the San Franciscan acid rock movement, and moreover curious also that two of the most prominent players of Frisco’s trademark free-flowing music should be airing simple, rootsy fingerpicked blues songs in this duo venture.

Yet this is exactly what Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Haight heavyweights Jefferson Airplane did; revisiting the blues guitar standards learned in their Washington D.C. youth, initially as an informal on-tour pastime to while away the hotel room tedium, subsequently slotted into a small section of an Airplane show, then a full-blown opening set of their own, through to whole Hot Tuna gigs when the Airplane were resting (Grace Slick’s throat problems and pregnancy dictated quite a bit of this), and ultimately as the full-time vehicle for Casady, Kaukonen (and by then violinist Papa John Creach) after the final demise of Jefferson Airplane in 1972.

The first Hot Tuna album remains, for many guitarists, as vital a lesson in country blues fingerpicking for subsequent generations as the originals of the very tunes that Jorma and Jack were rekindling; indeed, Kaukonen these days runs Fur Peace Ranch, a residential guitar tuition campus. Casady’s bass shines – already an exciting, seat-of-the-pants player in a group context, he is a whole rhythm section in one within the near-acoustic blues of Hot Tuna heard on the debut, especially where the spirit of San Francisco does prevail and the outfit allow themselves to take off for a few bars as in Death Don’t Have No Mercy. Will Scarlet augmented the duo on harp and two of the most enjoyable sides of country blues was the result.

Having pioneered the cut-down simplicity of a ‘core duo (plus guests)’ in 1969/70, Hot Tuna gradually became a full band through 1971/72 and evolved slowly into the main pursuit while the Airplane slowed down and eventually petered out. 1971’s First Pull Up, Then Pull Down was the first electric Tuna affair – Kaukonen, Casady, Scarlet and joined by drummer Sammy Piazza and veteran violinist Papa John Creach – but the release catered for both fans of Airplane and Tuna alike due to the enjoyable juxtaposition of similar fingerpicked material to the debut, however this time played loud and proud on electric instruments, with the trademark searing solos that Kaukonen had delighted Airplane audiences with; Creach proving a fine sparring partner on ear-splitting electric fiddle and Casady’s bass solo on Candyman from this LP is worth the admission alone. One of the best performances of this Tuna period is to be found on the film and soundtrack album of Last Days Of The Fillmore with Bill Graham’s personal introduction to “some good old friends” (Graham had served as Jefferson Airplane’s manager before Bill Thompson and a lack of Airplane at this momentous closure left Hot Tuna as the ambassadors of that camp).

With two live LPs to their credit and Jefferson Airplane expiring, 1972 was the crucial year for Hot Tuna who delivered Burgers, their first studio LP and a fine mix of acoustic and electric styles it was too, with David Crosby lending his vocals to Highway Song. But it was to be their finest studio effort. The Phosphorescent Rat followed in a roughly similar style in 1974, but lacked Papa John Creach who joined that other Jefferson Airplane spinoff, Jefferson Starship, for a while. His mercurial fiddle absent, the material lacked the irresistible rootsy rock flavour so prevalent on Burgers. Gone too after this fourth LP was drummer Sammy Piazza after Kaukonen opted to perform an acoustic tour in 1974. Future releases – like so much mid-seventies fare – became far more predictable, lumpen electric bluesy rock releases; Kaukonen’s guitar was smothered in effects and Piazza’s eventual replacement Bob Steeler, was seemingly chosen for his heavier style, not unlike Joey Covington’s replacement of Spencer Dryden in Jefferson Airplane had been. Hot Tuna bowed out after the 1977 tour documented on the live set Double Dose. Kaukonen’s prized acoustic fingerpicking did reappear in concert (documented on the first platter of the live double LP; as Tuna would open for Airplane, so Kaukonen aired this material solo before the main electric set from Hot Tuna).

The pair have reunited periodically to tour and record since the mid eighties and both Kaukonen and Casady have been honoured with signature instruments from Epiphone, a Gibson subsidiary. Latter day Tuna features the excellent mandolin work of Barry Mitterhoff – the most permanent “third man” since Papa John Creach – as well as such guests as Pete Sears, Larry Campbell, Bill Kirchen and G.E.Smith. In 2011, Hot Tuna released Steady As She Goes, their first studio album for many, many years.

Hot Tuna won friends because they wholeheartedly embraced a return to traditional, structured songs after the demise of freewheeling acid rock; San Francisco having been such a scene-led phenomenon, reliant on LSD, that was old hat by 1969. That the early album releases by The Band and the no-frills chart assault of Creedence Clearwater Revival was showing psychedelia a spotless pair of heels is well-known, as is the fact that Jefferson Airplane’s good friends and scene contemporaries in the Grateful Dead rose to the occasion beginning with Workingman’s Dead. If there was ever a “Workingman’s Airplane” it was Burgers.

Hot Tuna website

Hot Tuna biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #40

2 Comments

  1. Calvin Rydbom
    Aug 8, 2013

    I have to say, I think Hot Tuna is one of those bands who have never been able to capture their essence on an album. I live about 3.5 hours north of the Fur Peace Ranch, and because of that see Jack and Jorma somewhat regularly as they are amazing live. But I can’t tell you the last time I pulled out a studio album.

    • Rob Millis
      Aug 9, 2013

      Lucky old you for seeing them regularly! I saw them in the early nineties at the Town & Country in Kentish Town and that was great. I have to say I kind of agree and disagree at the same time: Burgers is the only 100% killer studio album for me, but at the same time I do find I play it more than the live ones as time goes on. I think the opener “True Religion” is just perfect: it builds as it goes on, ranging from the fingerpicked opening, to the ensemble verses then the more freewheeling solo section, and back again. Peter Viney will wade in that the first LP is the best, and I know what he means, but I think Burgers takes the country blues influences and allies them to a contemporary rock & roll sound, just like The Band and 1970-period Dead.

      Where I agree wholeheartedly is post-Burgers. I struggled to find anything from the period to recommend as a starter 10 tracks for the uninitiated. “Easy Now” was there as it was a favourite in my late teens when (to be honest) I was a Jefferson Airplane fan wanting more of the same blistering guitar work and looked to Tuna. It was age and decorum that led me to adore the fingerpicked work of Kaukonen, which of course we all know is his true speciality and deep love.

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