Hot Tuna: Forty Years On, Still Going Steady (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

The bridging of styles between rock, blues and country is something that Hot Tuna has been about since the very beginning. Nobody called it Americana in ‘70, but that’s what it was. Noting the popularity of Americana in the 21st century, Jack laughs when I suggest that maybe popular music has finally caught up with Hot Tuna. “You guys who write about this stuff, always put labels on the music.”

“Really,” bassist Jack Casady concedes, “there’s a certain truth to your saying that Hot Tuna has always brought that music out to our audience. In the beginning, people thought that we had written these Reverend Gary Davis songs. We had to educate people: ‘These are some of the artists we listen to, and we’re going to present them in a slightly different light.’”

But in the end, Jack insists that “it’s really not as complicated as people make it out to be.” He says that “it’s fifty years later, and we’re still digging these influences, and paying tribute to the great musicians — of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s — that we listen to.” Reflecting on the timeless nature of that music, Jack notes “the material speaks for everybody, without pigeonholing it in a political timeframe. Because, in a certain sense, politics are all the same. The struggles that people have are all the same, no matter what generation – or century — you’re from.”

He characterizes Jorma Kaukonen and himself as “explorers of these different genres. We try to inspire ourselves, and try to present things that make us want to play. We pass it on to our listeners through the means that we have: I play bass. Jorma plays guitar and sings.”

As has often been the case onstage and on record Hot Tuna is more than just Jack and Jorma. For eight years and running, Barry Mitterhoff has played mandolin with the group. Jack says that Barry “lends his ability for melody and tremendous capacity to sort through different genres of music” to Hot Tuna. “His influences only expand our world as well,” Jack says.

“For this project,” Jack says, “it was a great pleasure for me as a bass player to work on the rhythmic foundations with [drummer] Skoota Warner and Larry Campbell.” That approach, says Jack, “allowed Jorma to really concentrate on his vocal and his guitar playing.”

The harmony vocals of Teresa Williams are a key ingredient to the sound on Steady As She Goes. “I’m so happy that Larry was able to bring Teresa in,” Jack says. “And I’m happy that Jorma worked so well with her.” He makes special note of “Smokerise Journey.”  On that song, Jack’s goal was to “show my rhythm & blues roots, but at the same time, my family’s from Wheeling, West Virginia; I have that dichotomy working within me.” He recalls thinking, “I don’t want it to fall too heavily on the r&b side,” and found that Teresa’s Appalachian vocals struck just the right tone. “She’s the real deal,” Jack says.” He marvels that a song that was originally only “a verse and a chorus” ended up showcasing what he sees as “the most fun and intriguing things about working in a studio.”

Jack is especially proud of the collaborative approach employed on this album “We were old enough and – finally — mature enough to let everybody’s ideas develop. He points out Skoota Warner’s contribution: “Every song has a unique rhythm; he’s never just ‘playing along.’”

Jack’s bass playing style on the Jefferson Airplane albums of the 60s and early 70s differs greatly from his work – acoustic or electric – with Hot Tuna. “As a bass player, I’m dealing with the material; the material will dictate the style. For me, it was really great: I was fortunate enough to be thrown into a situation where I started to have to develop my own material.” He contrasts that with “otherwise having always to hear somebody else’s ideas first before you get to develop your own.”

“When I got to the Airplane,” Jack recalls, “they had all these different players and writers from different backgrounds. Jorma and I had the most in common; we had played in a lot of rhythm & blues bands, and had worked on arrangements. So when I came to work on Paul [Kantner]’s songs, or Marty [Balin]’s songs, or Grace [Slick]’s songs, it really gave me a fertile field to experiment with the bass, and to do different things.”

“I remember working on Paul’s songs,” Jack says. “Most of his are written in an anthem-like fashion; it was a really tough not to crack, trying to make those songs swing. So I’d be furiously playing along, trying to put notes together, trying to get those songs up and running, to make them move.”

“Marty was little more pop-oriented,” Jack remembers. “I’d find more of a steady groove in a lot of his songs. Grace was really interesting; she’d write a lot of her songs on the piano, and she’d use very interesting voicings. So that opened up another area of my imagination. And of course Jorma and I, because of our appreciation for playing together, we found a very cohesive combination. And then later on we developed that with Hot Tuna.”

Though there have been a number of new and archival Hot Tuna live albums, Steady As She Goes is the band’s first studio record in more than twenty years. “I think the timing is finally right,” Jack says. “We’ve had different people play with us over the years, but – from my point of view – when Skoota started playing with us a couple of years ago, I felt like I could finally move to the next level, creating good rhythm tracks.”

There’s also the fact that Jack and Jorma have stayed very busy in the interim. “Jorma and I have been playing constantly for the last twenty years as Hot Tuna. That, together with our teaching at the Fur Peace Ranch, let us know that there was something better ahead.” They were patient, waiting until the time was right, rather than “jumping into a studio a few years ago.” He admits that “both of us were really holding off; we didn’t have anything really new to say. But after a period of development – of teaching, and taking the time to assemble the right cast of characters – the timing was right.”

Speaking of those archival live releases, in 2010 Collectors’ Choice put out a whole bunch of albums featuring Jack and Jorma. In addition to the four live Jefferson Airplane sets, the label released Live at New Orleans House, a set dating from the very beginning of the band’s history. “I have some different views about this,” Jack says. “Sometimes I listen to that, and I think, ‘Boy, if I played that now, I’d play a lot less.’ But, on the other hand, I can really hear how young and aggressive we were about working on something new for us.”

Jack notes that in 1969, “There certainly weren’t many other guitar-and-bass duos. And most guitarists played in a linear fashion. They’d either play a melody line, or rhythm. Jorma’s playing certainly freed up my approach on the bass. With the thumb keeping the rhythm, the bass line along with the guitar were kind of like the two hands on a piano.” That freed Jack up to “move the bass into a different world — move the melody line – without the wind falling out of the song.” He notes that, “as young as we were, we still kept our direction.”

“Though it didn’t bring on any great record sales,” Jack wryly observes about the early string of shows, “it did begin to work on our loyal fan base. And that has passed through generations.” That thought lead Jack to reminisce even farther back. “When I was a kid — twelve, thirteen, fourteen – my father belonged to the American Jazz Society. I used to listen to all these jazz players from 20s and 30s. And I always enjoyed those small combos’ close interplay. This was done twenty, thirty years before my time; it was the fifties when I was listening to this stuff. To me, it was perfectly normal to listen to that, and to wonder about that other world. I listened to Jelly Roll Morton songs about New Orleans’ Storyville.” Jack mentions other artists – Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Condon – and recalls that their music “struck right through me. And at the same time, I could listen to rockabilly, rhythm and blues, all kinds of other stuff.”

All of that music, he says, “has profoundly affected me. In the back of my mind, it’s influenced where I always wanted to go with Jorma. Those early recordings sound to me like the beginning of the journey that I’m still on,” he says.

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