Let me lay it on you

Hot Tuna is back with their first studio recording in 20 years. Jorma Kaukonen ’64 has tunes and hard-earned wisdom to share.

Jorma Kaukonen ’64, the only Santa Clara grad from that year who joined Jefferson Airplane and played at Woodstock, is still picking out precious gems on his guitar at age 70. While with the Airplane, Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna as a side project. It’s now lasted four times as long as the Airplane, touring irregularly and producing far too few albums—as Steady As She Goes (Red House Records, 2011) proves.

Steady is Hot Tuna’s first studio recording in 20 years and a reminder of how rock elders can gracefully fold their age-earned perspective into new material, if properly chosen. Kaukonen, who wrote six of the new songs, has chosen well. So has Larry Campbell, the erstwhile Bob Dylan sideman who produced the album and plays on most of the cuts.

Steadyasshegoes

Kaukonen’s reedy voice, mindful of Leon Russell’s and just as evocative, is a perfect fit for “Things That Might Have Been,” a wistful look at his family relationships over the decades. The other songs are your basic Smithsonian-type journey through America’s musical culture of the last 50 years. You can imagine the chugging “A Little Faster” being played by the old Airplane inside a ballroom, right down to the rolling bass solo by Casady. The funky “Mourning Interrupted” is straight out of Memphis, while “Vicksburg Stomp” is a friendly handshake of bluegrass swing, and “If This Is Love (I Want My Money Back)” is a rowdy, hilarious roadhouse rocker.

But the set’s signature piece is Kaukonen’s own “Second Chances.” With his voice riding a soft and lovely melody, he reflects on life and mortality and looking in the mirror at your wrinkles. Kaukonen has said that back in the 1960s on the Mission Campus, he worked out the fingerwork for several eventual Jefferson Airplane songs while noodling on his guitar in the old Nobili Hall cafeteria. Today, I could well see him sitting outside on the building’s steps, singing “Second Chances” to current students and imparting lyrical wisdom that seems right at home there in the garden: “Our purpose turns from self to all. Our mission is to teach.”

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