The deficiency of my Hot Tuna collection is a little embarrassing, especially given how big a Jefferson Airplane fan I am. I’ve always known that Hot Tuna was essentially Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady from the Airplane, and they have been performing under that name, at venues accessible to me, nearly as long as I’ve been into the Airplane. And yet . . . I never once went to check them out, never once picked up a Hot Tuna record.
I discussed this with a similarly afflicted friend not too long ago, and we both came to the same conclusion as to how it was possible we had never dug into the Hot Tuna experience: we didn’t want to be disappointed. The widely despised “We Built This City” aside, when Jefferson Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship, while they produced some pretty songs, it was nothing like the Airplane. It seemed like they had eviscerated the very elements that made Jefferson Airplane so fantastic — the wild jams, the non-traditional changes, the soaring paired vocals. That was all gone. And when they further morphed into just Starship . . . well, that was a morph too far.
And so, if what went on from the Airplane in that direction was at least a little disappointing, it stood to reason that this other splinter could be as well. Anyone listening to radio in the ’70s and ’80s would have been unable to avoid knowing what happened with Jefferson Starship, but Hot Tuna wasn’t similarly saddled with hits, so I really never heard what they had put out. And recommendations from Deadhead friends that it was a lot like the Dead didn’t help, because I could not stand The Grateful Dead.
But I had heard Hot Tuna, it turns out, and didn’t even know it. I remember a party at a friend’s apartment, somewhen in the fall of 1981. At that party, I remember someone playing this fantastic blues that I just fell in love with, “Hesitation Blues.” I heard and it and loved it so much I insisted they play it again, which shows how fun I am at parties. The song was on “Flight Log,” a 1977 collection of the Airplane and associated acts — a collection I never wanted to pay for because I already had the Airplane songs on it that I wanted, I had no interest in the Jefferson Starship songs, and I just didn’t know anything about the rest. Seemed like a lot of investment to get just one song, so I did without for many, many years, not realizing that all I needed to do was pick up a Hot Tuna album (this one), and my mission would have been accomplished. Not only that, but I would have found out that I love Hot Tuna.
The pandemic has brought out some interesting new rituals and traditions. One of them has been a weekly live stream by Jorma Kaukonen from his Fur Peace Ranch. I’ll talk about what that has meant in the next entry. But starting to hear more of that and listen to him play, I decided there was no reason to not have Hot Tuna records in my collection. So back in November (2020), when we were still waiting for the election results, a group of us were able to enjoy a socially distanced gathering at Siren Records in Doylestown, and when I found both this and the next entry in the bins, I decided I had lived long enough without these records in my life. And since I brought them home, I’ve played them constantly. In fact, this week I decided there was no reason I couldn’t work out their version of Rev. Gary Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” on the piano (no reason other than I’m not sure I can sing it without crying, that is).
This is a live album of beautiful folk blues, released in May 1970, played by a couple of guys who had already been playing together for a long time, and were perfectly in synch, along with some great harmonica by Will Scarlet. When I don’t know quite what I want to hear, I just put this on. It’s always the right answer. That it took me 50 years to come to that conclusion – well, that’s just how my life works, I guess.