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Published: 2011/04/05
by Brian Robbins

Hot Tuna
Steady As She Goes

Red House Records

Listen: Steady As She Goes is simply a good Hot Tuna album. I’m not giving Tuna principals Jorma Kaukonen (guitar/vocals) and Jack Casady (bass) any extra points for being living legends or cutting them any slack for having a combined age this year (as of Jack’s birthday on April 13) of 137 – this is simply a good album. No – a great album; one that’ll stand on its own and look anything else in the band’s catalog eye-to-eye.

The fact is, 50-plus years of playing together proves to be nothing but a good thing in the case of Kaukonen and Casady. They are not only accomplished formation flyers, they’re still growing and developing in their playing and songwriting. No fat cats curled up and snoozing on their laurels here – Jorma and Jack are still playing their ever-loving asses off.

Add to that the amazing mandolin talents of Barry Mitterhoff (who’s approaching a decade in the Tuna family himself) and the presence of Skoota Warner, whose drumming is the perfect complement to Casady’s bass playing. Of the various electric Hot Tuna lineups over the many years, this could very well be the best ever.

And add to that the fact that Steady As She Goes was recorded at Levon Helm’s Barn, which brings three things into the equation:

First, the production talents of Larry Campbell (along with his ability to musically step into any band situation as a designated hitter and knock it out of the park every time – more on that later).

Second, the harmony vocals of Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams: neat sprinkles of sweetness over Kaukonen’s shoulder that complement his vox throughout the album.

And thirdly, the engineering talents of Justin Guip and assistant Brendan McDonough. Guip has proven his ability in the past (witness Helm’s Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt albums or the Black Crowes’ Before the Frost … Until The Freeze ). Steady As She Goes is yet another example of that great “Barn vibe” – a feel as distinctive in its own way as a Muscle Shoals recording.

“Details – give me details!” you cry. Well, sure: “Angel Of Darkness” features nasty snapping-and-growling rhythm guitar by Campbell and a classic Jorma vocal. At the 2:52 mark, there’s a big, fat warning chord, followed by the studio debut of Kaukonen’s Gibson Les Paul that has taken the place of his old faithful Epiphone Big Red as his main axe. Is it possible for a passage of music to sound stately and greasy at the same time? Yep – and this is the proof. Kaukonen’s lead work is strong throughout the album – from the soaring Jefferson Airplane feel of “A Little Faster” (Williams’ Grace Slickish vocals add to the effect bigtime) to the fast-lane guitar on “If This Is Love”. Old dog/new tricks/big smiles for all.

Mitterhoff is a key component in the Tuna sound on Steady As She Goes – from his acoustic mandolin playing on tunes such as “Children Of Zion” or “Vicksburg Stomp” to his nothing-but-beautiful electric mando solo on “Second Chances” or the amazing moment on “Is This Love” where he and Kaukonen have an absolute Duane-and-Dickey Allmanesque moment of speaking in parallel tongues.

Skoota Warner rolls with the moods of the album effortlessly. He lays down a happy bounce on “Mama Let Me Lay It On You” (check out Campbell’s fiddle work on that one); he fires off flurries of percussion on “Easy Now Revisited” that are as much about jazz as they are rock ‘n’ roll; and on “Mourning Interrupted” helps prove that the Tuna can get just plain funky when the moment calls for it. (By the way, if they ever do an animated Furry Freak Brothers movie, I humbly submit “Mourning Interrupted” as the opening theme song. I have no problem envisioning the Brothers doing their freakwalk to this. Not at all. Total Holy Goof.) Warner’s a good fit; he offers plenty of his own ideas, yet never loses sight of the groove. You could easily believe that he’d been playing with Casady for 50 years, too … except that Warner hadn’t even been born 50 years ago. Pretty cool.

Speaking of Jack Casady, he sounds like … well … Jack Casady, no matter what the occasion is. Dig the mellow swoops and swirls of his bass lines on “Things That Might Have Been”; grin like a fool to the happy bounce he lays down on “Goodbye To The Blues”; and when everyone else lays out and leaves just he and Warren to go at it in “A Little Faster”, you’ll catch yourself shaking your head. Who else could it be? Nobody.

Steady As She Goes is the sound of old gods at the top of their game – with a team behind them equal to the task. And I use the world “old” with total respect – this thing’ll knock you on your ass.

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