Jorma Kaukonen's current songwriting is one of the first signs of psychedelic nostalgia. Like the hoarse tone of his impressionistic guitar, Jorma's tunes and singing conjure, even now, the kind of religious ambitions most of us buried long ago.
Hot Tuna's fourth album, though, is far from a resurrection of past glories. If the songs appeal, melodically, to a bygone state of mind, the musicianship too recalls why the high San Francisco style had to die. When Jorma and Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna, they seemed to be mining the blues and country music for the grooves that were missing in all but the best of the Bay Area bands (read Dead and early Airplane). A musical habit had developed in accord with the ideology of the Haight: ignore the earth, and by implication a groove, and reach instead for the airy heights. Thus, drummers and bassists grew too fond of cymbals and top strings, neglecting the need for solid beats and bottoms in order to join in the lust for incantation.
Jorma and Casady seemed to be retrieving those missing roots when they went acoustic. But after the first Hot Tuna album, they hired Sammy Piazza, as if to relax their rescue work and retire into the false comfort of the past. Piazza's drumming is a maze of nervous frills hiding a rhythmic ignorance that's a virtual caricature of the deficiencies of the old acid style.
When Jorma's writing fails on this new album to summon the sweet remembrance of San Francisco past, the band itself succeeds - by recalling the musical shortcomings. With departure of blues fiddler Papa John Creach, Hot Tuna has lost its only defense against regression. Dense electric songs like "Easy Now," "In the Kingdom," and "I See the Light" (surely, one hopes, an ironic title) depend too much on naked musicianship alone to share the saving mood magic of "Soliloquy for Two," "Corners Without Exits," and "Living Just for You" (the last the album's purest example of psychedelic nostalgia).
But even psychedelic nostalgia can't soak up the thick, muddy drone that pervades all but Jorma's two mild acoustic instrumentals. Though he still exudes sincerity, Jorma's soloing has lost its ingenuity and its lyricism. And Casady, a onetime mister funk, hardly wants to swing anymore, preferring Sammy's swamps instead. His bass was the thickest of the sixties, but it could kick and snap, too; now it mopes and groans along with the rest of the band, too tired to rock out.
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March 26 1974