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Published: 2009/02/10
by Brian Robbins

River of Time – Jorma Kaukonen

Red House Records

When The Band released Music From Big Pink all those many years ago, it wasn’t just the music that spun things around and changed them forever, it was the way it was created. Big Pink was the boys’ clubhouse and living quarters tucked away in the woods of the Catskills a modest-sized plain-Jane (except for its garish color) house that birthed the music for the Band’s debut album (and simultaneously the site of the Dylan/Band Basement Tapes). The idea of holing up in a comfortable living space, throwing ideas at the wall, seeing what sticks, and letting a creative vibe emerge from the experience is a romantic notion that has almost become a clichmany a musician has referred to the Big Pink sessions while immersed in their own pilgrimage in search of a rootsier sound.

These days, original Band member (and reigning godfather of all things tagged “Americana”) Levon Helm lives just a couple miles down the road from Big Pink, and his “Barn” a combination home/studio/venue – not only captures the original creative vibe, but purifies it, heats it up on the wood stove, wraps you up in it, and tucks it in around your chin.

Combine the Barn vibe with the music of founding Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and you have what may be Jorma’s finest solo album of his career: the newly-released River Of Time. For this 13-song mix of originals and covers, with a couple of revisits to old standbys, Jorma and mando-master/Hot Tuna co-conspirator Barry Mitterhoff settled in and made themselves at home. The result is an excellent-sounding piece of work chock full of warmth, grins, and some fine playing.

Sitting in on bass for the River Of Time sessions is a veteran of the NY music scene, Lincoln Schleifer, whose style meshes well with the spirit of the project. Jorma crew chief Myron Hart also joins in the fun, plunking the low end for “Nashville Blues.” (Tunaheads take note: sure, it would be neat to have longtime—50 years!—Jorma buddy Jack Casady handling bass chores on a project like this, but Schleifer and Hart keep the pulse beating in the nicest of ways. It’s all cool.)

MVP honors for River Of Time go to Larry Campbell. In case you don’t know, Larry was born on the Planet Of Strings where he was an acknowledged Holy One Destined To Do Great Things. He was sent to Earth at a young age to make it a better place, rising to fame as a longtime sideman of Mr. Dylan’s and, later, as a Friend of Phil’s. Levon’s Barn, however, has been the setting for some of Campbell’s finest work and this album is no exception. Besides his production talents, Larry lends tasteful guitar, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, pedal steel-you name it—blending in as if he’d been picking alongside Jorma for 50 years himself. Five cuts on River feature drums, with the duties split between Barn engineer Justin Guip and the aforementioned Mr. Helm.

Some highlights: longtime Jorma followers will recognize the opening licks of “Been So Long” that kick off the album yes, it’s been done before, but not like this. Jorma takes us through a couple of passionate verses and then the music launches into jam territory with Schleifer’s bass and a mandolin-wielding Campbell weaving around Jorma’s guitar. Or, take “Trouble In Mind”, which starts off with some sweet Jorma fingerpicked blues before the band falls in behind him with big, greasy grins. At the 2:33 mark, the song tries to wind down to an end, but Levon refuses to let it go: one beat, two beats, then Larry Campbell jumps back in with some nasty slide and—_they’re off_—cookin’ until the fade.

Deadheads rejoice! Jorma digs into the old Pig Pen classic, “Operator” featuring a tasty mando solo by Mitterhoff and just-right drumming by Justin Guip. Speaking of Barry Mitterhoff, get out your hankerchiefs he will break your heart on the sweet instrumental “A Walk With Friends” (and if the mando doesn’t do it, Larry Campbell’s fiddle will).

Jorma has always had a way of opening himself up in his music – and the Barn really brings out the best in him. You don’t need to be a parent to appreciate the beauty of his songs inspired by his little daughter, the lovable “Izze’s Lullaby” or the soulful “Simpler Than I Thought”. And the title track knows no age limits, either on either end: a deceptively simple-sounding melody lays the groundwork for a philosophy lesson inspired by a dream: we are all connected by the “River Of Time.”

There’s warm, good, healing, and inspiring magic going on in Levon Helm’s barn these days and with Jorma Kaukonen as the visiting head wizard, how can you go wrong?

You can’t.

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