Bentley's Bandstand: Hot Tuna, Steady As She Goes

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Hot Tuna, Steady As She Goes, Red House Records

When you wait 20 years between studio albums, you better blast out of the gate with plenty of gusto, have some great new songs and sound like you are ready to conquer the world. Fortunately, Hot Tuna is good on all counts. They’re one of the strongest so-called side projects in American music history, having been born when Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady’s main band Jefferson Airplane was grounded for mental fog or some other peculiar malady. That didn’t stop the guitarist and bass player from taking their act on the road and showing off their musical roots with pride. But Hot Tuna was never about exactitude in their sonic attitude. They had sampled way too much of Owsley’s finest for that. Instead, it was about taking the inspiration from revered innovators like Reverend Gary Davis and twisting it into something different, something they could call their own. So what started in small Bay Area bars became a growing concern. Different Tunas came and went, but Kaukonen and Casady never wavered. Over four decades later they still hit the note.

On Steady As She Goes, the quartet–also including mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Skoota Warner with guest singer Teresa Williams–headed to Woodstock. Not to search out any lingering vibes from the 1969 festival but rather to work with producer Larry Campbell at Levon Helm’s recording studio. By the time they got there Hot Tuna had a passel of new songs, a few tingling covers and an approach which said they weren’t leaving until everything gelled. Gel it did, too. Listen to “Second Chances” or “Mourning Interrupted” to hear what an emotionally-moving songwriter Kaukonen has become, or “Children of Zion” and “Mama Let Me Lay It on You” to be reminded how Reverend Gary Davis’ soul still tickles their fancy. This is an outfit that has a piercing center, and aided by Campbell’s distinctive production touch proves they have very few peers.

Sometimes the Sixties seem so long ago it’s hard to remember just how revolutionary those years really were. Rock & roll music got turned completely around, with half-hour songs capable of creating hallucinatory visions where the world felt brand new. But, really, the folk and blues underpinnings of the Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, Big Brother, Country Joe and everyone else exploding out of San Francisco then were never buried. Rather, they were built upon. Hot Tuna is here to remind us the foundation of psychedelic music is alive, well and continually able to turn us on, whether we tune in and drop out or not. The album ends with “Vicksburg Stomp,” a celebration of music born deep n the South but carried around the globe by people like Hot Tuna and other true believers. Satisfaction guaranteed.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.