The original lead guitarist with Jefferson Airplane and co-founder of Hot Tuna has come full circle in recent years, back to the acoustic folk-blues he was fingerpicking before the Summer of Love. Backed here by the cream of country’s acoustic pickers, he lends his “Piedmont” style of Eastern Seaboard blues (a la Blind Blake, Brownie McGhee, and Rev. Gary Davis) to a baker’s dozen Depression-era hillbilly covers – in doing so, illustrating how permeable the “wall” between black blues and white country music is. (The fact that six of these country chestnuts have the word “blues” in their titles should be another tip.)
It’s a testament to the maturity of the virtuoso players involved – Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, Byron House on upright bass, Jorma and his 1936 Advanced Jumbo Gibson, and banjoist Bela Fleck on two numbers – that they create an atmosphere akin to a relaxed backporch song-swap instead of a picking contest. As often as not, Kaukonen’s rhythm keeps things rolling while the others trade tasteful solos and fills, although Jorma kicks up some dust on Cliff Carlyle’s “Tom Cat Blues” and executes some snaky curlicues on Jimmie Rodgers’ “You and My Old Guitar.” The all-acoustic affair was recorded live and warm by engineer/co-producer Roger Moutenot, and it sure sounds like it must have been fun.
The only drawback is that the repertoire could have been less predictable. Two-thirds of the songs come from Rodgers or the Delmore Brothers – including tried-and-true standards such as the former’s “Waiting For a Train” and the latter’s “Blues Stay Away From Me.” And Rodgers’ “Gambler’s Blues” (with a nice bowed solo from House) is pleasant, but I guess Dave Van Ronk’s emotional version (a variation on “St. James Infirmary”) spoiled me.
That said, the warhorse “Just Because” comes alive with some energetic trade-offs between Fleck and Douglas, then Bush and Douglas, Fleck and Bush, etc. Also, the more standard fare serves to highlight the lesser-known numbers, such as “Breadline Blues” and “In From the Chain Gang.” This is especially true on Washington Phillips’ gospel tune, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” – where Jorma’s voice (which has mellowed into a sort of deeper, less angular Leon Russell) takes on a softer, gentler quality, and the ensemble lays back, as Jerry Douglas throws in a few perfectly placed slides. The perfect close to a most listenable set.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.