[8 November 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s quite amazing to consider how long Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady have been making beautiful music together. Their unique friendship and musical bond predate their days in Jefferson Airplane, and have remained a constant in an ever-changing world. That’s the good news. The better news is that Jorma and Jack continue to share their talents well into a fifth decade, via the great side project, Hot Tuna. And with the public’s newfound appreciation for the jam band aesthetic over the last several years, their music is as current now as ever before.
For devout Tuna fans, Jorma and Jack are beloved members of a collective extended family. For newcomers and casuals fans, however, the two are something of a best kept secret. Yet, long before Phish and Govt. Mule were household names, Hot Tuna was the preeminent extended play outfit. Heck, Jorma and Jack were stretching sets even before the Allmans joined the fray. And with countless performances (and nearly two dozen albums) on a 40-year-long resume, the Hot Tuna legend continues to grow.
Though it’s impossible to quantify the scope of Hot Tuna with a single platter, The Very Best Of does an admirable job of distilling 14 tracks from the expansive Tuna catalogue. Culled from studio and stage, the material covers Tuna’s work in the 1970s, and provides a wonderful primer for understanding and appreciating the musical direction (and vision) of Jorma and Jack. From the opening strums of “Hesitation Blues” to the final fading notes of “Killing Time in the Crystal City”, the magic of Hot Tuna is everywhere for all to see and hear. Besides the precise musicianship, the key lies in the music’s accessibility. Traditionally, jam band output has been the acquired taste of a dedicated fan base, loyal to the genre and its respective practitioners. But Jorma and Jack are so darn engaging, and their playing so seamless, that it’s difficult not to instantly be drawn into their unique world of rollicking bluegrass rhythms, irrespective of one’s preferences. Make no mistake, The Very Best Of isn’t some ambling sonic journey to nowhere, but a collection of tunes from Tuna’s maturation period. And there’s something for everyone to enjoy … Jorma’s vocals are steady and sure; his fretboard work, crisp at times, twangy at others, but consistently masterful. Compare the diversity of his playing on the breezy “True Religion” and the scorching electric frenzy of “Funky #7”, (then wonder aloud why he’s not more recognized as a phenomenal guitarist). And Jack? He provides the solid rhythmic foundation throughout, with a particularly notable solo in “Candy Man”.
Ironically, of the album’s song list, only three tracks come in north of the six-minute mark, thus, there aren’t any big jams to indulge in. But no worries, the album radiates with unpretentious warmth, be it acoustic or electric, live or not. And despite The Very Best Of being a thumbnail sketch of Hot Tuna, there lies a remarkable gem among its offerings. “Water Song” is as exquisite an instrumental as ever recorded, laden with hooks and nuances that bring to mind a flowing hillside steam. It’s a song that personifies all that Hot Tuna has accomplished, and continues to offer its fans and friends.
So, if you’re new to Tuna, The Very Best Of is a perfect entre into the mix. And if you’re a card-carrying Tuna aficionado, then the tracks will be a pleasant addition to the CD collection. But no matter who you are, or how long you’ve been into the band, just remember … if you don’t know Jorma, you don’t know Jack.