Hot Tuna – Steady As She Goes (2011)

FrontCover1Steady as She Goes is the first Hot Tuna studio album since 1990. After Jorma Kaukonen recorded his solo album in 2009 at Levon Helm’s studio in NY, he asked his new record company Red House if they would be interested in a Tuna album. The band started recording new tracks in November 2010 with the same producer and studio that Kaukonen used for River of Time and features the latest lineup of the band that formed in 2009 when Skoota Warner joined on drums. On March 11, 2011 Red House released Angel of Darkness as a free single. The album was released on CD and on iTunes April 5, 2011 and was released on vinyl in May. The album first charted on the Tastemaker and Independent album lists compiled by Billboard for the week of April 23.

After years of releasing live albums, Kaukonen felt it was time to record a new electric studio album with the band when his current label for his solo work, Red House Records, was interested. Kaukonen started by writing one song, but with deadlines set and being locked in to studio time with the band, he collaborated and ended up writing six songs for the album. The band used Levon Helm’s studio which Kaukonen had recorded his previous solo album at, River of Time. For the new album, Kaukonen decided to take the approach he used with Jefferson Airplane, letting others work out the charts for the rhythm section and concentrating on the lead guitar lines. Also to reflect back to Jefferson Airplane’s style, Teresa Williams recorded harmony vocals similar to Grace Slick’s on several tracks.

Inside01A
Only the second Hot Tuna studio set in 30 years, and the band’s first in two decades, the outfit circa 2011 is a decidedly older, wiser, and more laid-back unit than the amped-up boogie-ers responsible for a series of successful albums in the ’70s. That’s a mixed blessing, though, because the Tuna seem to have lost some of their fire during their long layoff from the studio. Where once Jack Casady’s thunderous bass played tag with Jorma Kaukonen’s blustery, psychedelic blues guitar lines, the duo — now fleshed out with mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Skoota Warner — is now content to be a pretty decent but far less distinctive folk, blues, and singer/songwriter act. Casady’s forcefully idiosyncratic, almost lead basslines of old are barely audible here, and even though there are flashes where the old intensity is evident, particularly on Kaukonen’s “Mourning Interrupted,” this is a well-intentioned, totally professional album that lacks bite. A pair of Rev. Gary Davis covers are also reminiscent of days gone by, especially “Mama Let Me Lay It on You” with guest fiddle from producer Larry Campbell (filling in for the deceased Papa John Creach) that rolls through the “Keep on Truckin'” riff and melody. There are some quality songs, such as the melancholy musings of “Second Chances,” but this is more like a Kaukonen solo album than a long-awaited return from a once powerful band that mixed acoustic and electric blues into a blistering, often explosive concoction. Recording in Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio provides an open, rootsy sound and Campbell keeps the proceedings clean and classy, if somewhat antiseptic compared to the shambling attack Hot Tuna fans remember. Kaukonen’s patented electric solos evident on the opening “Angel of Darkness” are dramatic and typically blistering, but there aren’t enough of those moments. Making matters more frustrating is the choice of material, in particular the humorous yet repetitious by-the-numbers rocking of “If This Is Love.” The closing instrumental, “Vicksburg Stomp,” returns to the sharp pickin’ approach of Hot Tuna’s 1970 acoustic debut, perhaps a fitting reminder of the group’s early times trying to make their name as something other than a Jefferson Airplane offshoot. There is plenty to enjoy about this unexpected return, and it’s encouraging that the Casady/Kaukonen relationship — both musical and personal — has persevered for over 50 years. (by Hal Horowitz)

Inside02APersonnel:
Jack Casady (bass)
Jorma Kaukonen (vocals, guitar)
Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin)
Skoota Warner (drums)
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Larry Campbell (pedal steel.guitar, guitar, violin, organ, vocals)
Teresa Williams (vocals)

Inside03A
Tracklist:
01. Angel Of Darkness (Campbell/Kaukonen) 4.43
02. Children Of Zion (Davis) 4.50
03. Second Chances (Kaukonen) 4.21
04. Goodbye To The Blues (Wilborn) 4,32
05. A Little Faster (Hurlbut) 4.55
06. Mourning Interrupted (Kaukonen) 5.06
07. Easy Now Revisited (Kaukonen/Campbell) 3.41
08. Smokerise Journey (Kaukonen/Casady/Campbell) 4.28
09. Things That Might Have Been (Kaukonen) 4.15
10. Mama Let Me Lay It On You (Davis) 4.46
11. If This Is Love (Markham) 5.01
12. Vicksburg Stomp (Instrumental) (McCoy) 3.44

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