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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1547

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Jorma Kaukonen: River of Time -- by George Graham

(Red House Records 217 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/4/2009)

Rock and roll is generally considered a young person's music. Indeed, it was invented as a kind of youthful rebellion. But that was a long time ago, and those pioneering rock musicians are getting up in years. Sometimes the music does not age well on them. While some can somehow seem eternally youthful, most guys and their 50s and 60s are less than impressive making those rock moves, and singing songs about teenage love.

On the other hand there are those who with age move into other things. This time we have an excellent example, a 68-year old member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who in recent years has making some fine acoustic folk and blues music. It's Jorma Kaukonen, who has just released a new CD called River of Time.

Actually, this kind of music is a return to the Jefferson Airplane founder's roots. It's what he started on before being lured into the possibilities that the electric guitar offered, especially in San Francisco in the seminal psychedelic days. But he has maintained an outlet for his blusier side and affinity for traditional songs through the band Hot Tuna, which has continued, on and off, for almost 40 years.

A native of Washington, DC, Jorma Kaukonen, Jr. was the son of a Finnish American diplomat. So part of his youth was spent posted in foreign countries. While still in his teens, he began playing with long-time friend Jack Casady. Kaukonen attended Antioch College in Ohio, and there was exposed to finger-style guitar and to the music of Rev. Gary Davis, strongly influencing Kaukonen. He relocated to the Bay area to continue his studies in 1962, playing folk acoustic guitar and teaching. Kaukonen eventually recruited Casady when the Jefferson Airplane was forming around 1964, and their musical partnership has persisted for almost 50 years.

While the Jefferson Airplane was still in its ascendency, Kaukonen and Casady also looked to return to their bluesy roots, and formed Hot Tuna as an Airplane side project. They also used it as an opportunity to play lengthier, jam-oriented sets live.

In recent years, in addition to the occasional Hot Tuna tour, Kaukonen and his wife have been operating Fur Peace Ranch, a 100-plus-acre music and guitar camp in Ohio, offering instruction and an intimate performance space. Kaukonen has also been issuing a somewhat infrequent series of solo albums, starting with one called Quah in 1974. His latest continues the kind of country blues and folk that has been at his musical roots, and that was also highlighted in his 2002 CD Blue Country Heart, which we reviewed in this series.

Kaukonen's new CD River of Time is a mix of mostly original songs in the style, plus some old tunes by the likes of Gary Davis, Merle Travis and Mississippi John Hurt. He is joined by mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff, who tours with Kaukonen in the current incarnation of Hot Tuna, plus multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, who plays guitar, fiddle and pedal steel. On bass is Lincoln Schleifer, and making several guest appearances on drums is Levon Helm, of The Band. The CD was recorded at Helm's studio in Woodstock, NY.

River of Time opens with a track called Been So Long, a remake of a Hot Tuna song, nicely done in the acoustic setting. <<>>

The CD includes a song by one of Kaukonen's heroes, the Reverend Gary Davis, There's a Bright Side Somewhere. The band is augmented by the drums of Levon Helm, in this easy-going, appealing version. <<>>

The subject of mortality is addressed on the song called Another Man Done a Full Go Round, written by another traditional bluesy-folk performer Roy Book Binder. It's perfect material for this group. <<>>

One of the more familiar songs on the CD is the blues standard Trouble in Mind, which Kaukonen and band give an energetic treatment. <<>>

Kaukonen is responsible for one of the most famous acoustic guitar instrumental tracks in rock history, Embryonic Journey with the Jefferson Airplane. He includes two instrumentals on River of Time. One is a new piece called Izzy's Lullaby, for his young daughter. Larry Campbell plays multiple violins, emulating a small string section. <<>>

Another old song that Kaukonen and colleagues serve up is More Than My Old Guitar by Merle Haggard. Their arrangement gives it an appropriate touch of country, with Campbell's fiddle. <<>>

The group covers a Grateful Dead song Operator, and again the result is first-rate, in an expanded version of the band, including Levon Helm. <<>>

The title track River of Time is an original song about the passing of generations, which is given an almost bluegrass setting. <<>>

And also in the bluegrass mold is Kaukonen's version of a Delmore Brothers tune Nashville Blues, which is another highlight of the CD.

Jorma Kaukonen's new CD River of Time is an excellent example of a mature rocker staying at the top of his game musically by doing the kind of material that is enhanced by the length of the experience of the artist. And it's also a return to the music of Kaukonen's youth before he was a founder of the Jefferson Airplane. It's a nice combination of original compositions and tasteful performances of old songs with a group who sound as if they are very much enjoying their mutual company.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A," something we don't give out that often. The acoustic instrumentation is well-recorded, and the CD has a respectable dynamic range, maintaining the difference between loud and soft passages.

It's sometimes embarrassing seeing and hearing rock artists of a previous generation trying to prove they are still rockers. Jorma Kaukonen takes an opposite approach and creates music that will no doubt stand the test of time.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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