Jorma Kaukonen: River of Time

[22 March 2009]

By Steve Horowitz

Acoustic Blues for our Time

Listen, I have been sad lately. I know I am not alone. I read the papers. The whole country seems to be going through a malaise. I understand that CD reviews are not the place for personal confessions, but music is the one thing that dependably cheers me up. Maybe you find that true, too.

They say misery loves company, and the blues have always been a reliable source of solace. Not the hardcore, “My baby left me and I can’t pay my rent cuz the man done fired me” electric stuff. That music has its place, but recently I find I relate more to the gentle, acoustic blues. The sound does not pound my head as hard and sets my mind wandering to a better place.

Nobody does the acoustic blues better these days than the founder of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen. His warm, laidback approach soothes the troubled mind, so fittingly he covers the old blues chestnut, “Trouble in Mind”. He coos the lyrics while his fingers deftly pick out the notes like a schoolchild plucking berries from a briar patch. When he sings, “But I won’t be blue always”, you believe him and can imagine the sun shining down on him.

Kaukonen’s rendition of the Reverend Gary Davis tune “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” offers even more hope. The uplifting lyrics and wonderfully plucked guitar provide instant cheer, and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff offers an amazing counterpoint to the bright melody. It makes one want to go to a revival tent and shout “Hallelujah!”, at least in one’s own mind.

Mitterhof is not the only sideman to provide solid support. The disc was recorded at Levon Helm’s Woodstock, New York studio and the drummer for the Band lays down the beat on several numbers. The disc’s producer, Larry Campbell, plays several stringed instruments, most notably the fiddle on the wonderful instrumental “Izze’s Lullaby”. The song moves with a natural grace, like water over rocks in a babbling brook. It’s lovely in its simplicity and understated elegance.

Kaukonen wrote “Izze’s Lullaby” plus several other tracks here that blend right in with the old standards he includes. He even turns Merle Haggard’s country tune “More Than My Old Guitar” into a folk blues number by slowing down the tempo and accentuating the metaphors invoked. When Kaukonen sings that he loves his woman more than God loves the poor, he sounds like he is saying something sacred more than heretical. His belief in a higher power is only affirmed by his love for another human being.

There are a few minor missteps on the disc. While Kaukonen does not perform the songs badly, some tunes just don’t fit, like his cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Operator”. While Kaukonen may have the same Bay Area credentials and a shared history, the song comes off as slick and forced. He does not do anything to the song that the Dead haven’t done better. It seems superfluous. The confessional “Simpler Than I Thought” also seems somewhat leaden. Lyrics like, “It’s simpler than I thought / Your smiling ties the knot / There is no time / Like now to learn / The lessons we forgot” are better off forgotten, or even unheard.

But a few inferior songs are a small price to pay for the beauty and charm offered elsewhere on this disc. Kaukonen’s music can ease a worried mind and placate one’s uneasy soul. That deserves recognition and praise.

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