I managed to see Jefferson Starship live a number of times in the late '90s. Jorma Kaukonen had long since left the band -- in fact, they were called Jefferson Airplane when he was their guitarist. Regardless, remaining members Kantner, Casady, Balin and company had found a rebirth of sorts, and were turning out some pretty hot live versions of some of the songs Kaukonen had played on in the band’s heyday. As a result, I have Jefferson Starship to thank for introducing me to the magic of Kaukonen’s playing when I sought out some of those original albums, including Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers.
He’ll always be known primarily for that music and to a lesser extent the recordings he’s made with Hot Tuna, the more acoustic, bluesy band he formed with bassist Jack Casady as Jefferson Airplane was crashing. Yet Kaukonen’s had a busy life in music apart from those two revered bands, as well. Early on, he was playing bluegrass, folk, and blues in the clubs and coffeehouses of Washington D.C. and Northern California. Much later, circa 1979 and 1980, he reinvented himself as an orange-haired punk rocker. In 1989 he founded Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, a guitarist’s fantasy destination, hosting live shows, guitar camps and workshops. Since 2007, he’s been signed to Red House Records, home to storytelling folk artists such as Greg Brown, John Gorka, and Tom Paxton. The label is a perfect fit for the like-minded Kaukonen.
Kaukonen’s latest release, Ain’t in No Hurry, finds him farther down the line and, as the title says, he’s in no hurry to get to the end of that line. On the album cover, he looks in a motorcycle rear view mirror as if he’s got miles of memories stretched out behind him. It’s a healthy brand of nostalgia here, though. In the press release, he says “You just can’t go backward. The arrow of time only goes in one direction. At this point in my life perhaps I should be in more of a hurry, but for me it's more important that each piece fits in the right place at the right time. The songs you hear in this album cover a lot of ground for me. Some are very old, and some quite new. From where I came from to where I am today... it is all here.”
These mellow folk blues encompass songs from the Great Depression era: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (a demo version of which was recorded way back in 1964 by Janis Joplin with Kaukonen on guitar), as well as a re-arranged obscure Woody Guthrie tune called “Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me”. Recalling his work on earlier album Blue Country Heart, he ventures further afield and into country soundscapes on the Carter Family’s old-time classic “Sweet Fern”. Similarly, the title song (one of four Kaukonen originals on the album) features a generous dose of pedal steel guitar.
Collaboration with other musicians has always been a hallmark of Kaukonen’s career, and it’s no different here. Strong contributions from multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell fill out most of the tracks and “Bar Room Crystal Ball” pairs Kaukonen up with long-time friend and musical foil Jack Casady in a Grateful Dead-like excursion. A long track approaching eight minutes, the breezy stretchout provides a nice counterpoint to the more traditional material elsewhere and is a highlight.
The last song, a solo piece called “Seasons in the Field”, encapsulates the themes and tone of the album in a meditation on life measured in seasons. The song, like the album, is a coming to terms with the passing of time and a realization that the past enriches the present:
I keep seeing a moment
That keeps living in my heart
Can’t turn my back on memories
They open all the doors that shield today
On a foundation we’ve been building since our youth
I draw it close
An ancient friend
Wrap myself in truth
Ain’t in No Hurry is feel-good music, played by a seasoned and assured troubadour equally at home on a spotlit stage or a front porch. This far into his career, it’s nice to hear he’s still got it.