Hot Tuna was not as much of a departure for the pair that made the music as it would seem. Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen were flying high as founding members and lead guitar (Jorma) and bass (Jack) for San Francisco psychedelic top dogs Jefferson Airplane. The duo formed Hot Tuna in 1970 and set to the business of releasing records.
Two albums came out quickly, a live show, on album one (recorded at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, California) and the jam style of album two, easing on the production costs and set-up. Hot Tuna (1970) and First Pull Up Then Pull Down (1970) brought Jorma Kaukonen full circle and back to the coffee house acoustic blues that he played in pre-Airplane days. Listening to the re-issues, it was a good return.
Jorma’s guitar was always a key ingredient of Jefferson Airplane music though the politics and talking points of front woman Grace Slick and band leader Paul Kantner took media and, by default, public attention. In Airplane songs, Jorma’s guitar work always had a blues base, which was an easy listening miss for the predominantly young white audience. Cross pollination of music was still a future goal and psychedelic music was a clearing house of varied sounds coming together under one banner. The acid dripped leads of the Jefferson Airplane were all part of the trip, man, and tracing them back to the source was not a goal amid finger trails and melting walls.
Hot Tuna arrived with no need to trace the path of music anywhere. Jorma Kaukonen was a blues natural and the songs included on the album were, for the most part, Folk Blues classics. Hot Tuna played host to two of Jorma’s originals alongside a pair of songs each from ReverendGary Davis (including the much recorded “Death Have No Mercy”) and Jelly Roll Morton. Three traditionals make an appearance including “Uncle Sam Blues”, a track that fit in perfectly with the turbulent anti-war tone of the 1960’s. (NOTE: A “traditional” is the term used to connote an often well-known song which has no writer credited.) The song breaks down the message to more human terms with lines like “Uncle Sam ain’t no woman, but he sure does take your man” and “I’m gonna do some fighting, of that you can be sure. Well now, I wanna kill somebody, won’t have to break no kinda law”. Hot Tuna barely raises its head above an acoustic tone, with the work of Jorma and Jack complemented with Will Scarlett on harmonica.
Jorma Kaukonen plays blues guitar with an intuitive ability, but Hot Tuna’s dual punch came courtesy of bassist Jack Casady. Few other bass players play their instrument as if it were a lead guitar. Jack Casady shares that status with maybe one other four sting guru, John Entwhistle of The Who. Jack Casasdy’s playing can be described as jam or jazz-based, but his playing is pure rock and though hardly a strictly rhythm instrument in his hands, his bass notes manage to balance both improvisation and beat.
For their second album, Hot Tuna retreated deep into the Santa Cruz Mountains, returning with the three players from their eponymous debut and adding in recent Airplane addition Papa John Creach on fiddle and Sammy Piazza on drums. Like another Who member, Keith Moon, Piazza’s drumming does double duty, maintaining a consistent rhythm and still finding lots of room to move around. Papa John Creach makes fiddle playing blues cool. Another change on First Pull Up Then Pull Down is the decision to plug in. The second album, and first studio session, is 100% electrified.
You know how it is when friends drop by and things get rowdy? First Pull Up Then Pull Down kicks off with Papa John leading the charge with his fiddle. The opening track, “John’s Other” (written by Papa John Creach), sets the pace and forces itself out of the speakers with the message “Hot Tuna paid the dues on electricity”. Extended jams are the norm and only seven tunes grace the album. There are psychedelic overtones to the production, but even amid the distortion and feedback, there is a blues heart beating. Two blues classics, both tunes by Reverend Gary Davis, receive a remake for the second album. “Candyman” is a traditional blues song that got a lot of attention in the early 60’s folk days as a hit for Dave Van Ronk. In “Keep Your Lamps Trim and Burning”, Hot Tuna upped the electric ante and delivered a song that stands as a cornerstone for psychedelic blues. Hmmm, guess that lamp must have been filled with lava.
Hot Tuna created their sound in the early 70’s and both albums one and two were released at the dawn of the decade. The 1970 stamp on the albums gives the impression that they were meant as companion pieces for a new group who wanted the world to know that they were as comfortable with acoustic as well as electric deliveries.
Jamming was something you did in 1970 but not something that you dubbed the finished product. With Bonnaroo, not even a gleam in the three-day-music-festivals eye, Hot Tuna was certainly one of the first bands to achieve major success with the style. Hot Tuna and First Pull Up Then Pull Down stand as proud testament to a band that continues today, long after the main gig as Airplane members has disappeared.
The albums have been lovingly reconstructed as part of the Vinyl Replica Collection. Culture Factory USA has selected the catalog of Hot Tuna as worthy of a rebirth. The sound on these recordings is phenomenal. The clarity of the guitar and bass in acoustics give the feeling of sitting at the artists’ feet. On the electric, the instruments sizzle; you can almost feel the heat of the amps. Culture Factory USA curated the discs with such care that all original artwork on the albums is present, even down to the RCA logo on the disc, which looks like a mini-twelve incher piece of vinyl. More Hot Tuna releases are on their way. The collection starts here.
Listen and buy music from Hot Tuna HERE
Listen and buy music from First Pull Up Then Pull Down HERE