Standing on the other side of life with Jorma Kaukonen

By Sam Robertson

Jorma Kaukonen is best known as the high-flying guitarist of Jefferson Airplane who pioneered psychedelic rock in San Francisco in the late 1960’s. Although they were only together for a half dozen years, Jefferson Airplane became one of the most popular bands of the 1960’s. Their songs such as “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love” helped form the soundtrack for the Summer of Love and the counterculture. Along with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Kaukonen helped create the sound that is now known as acid rock with his loud, screeching, psychedelic guitar playing. However, even during Kaukonen’s wildest years with Airplane, he never forgot his blues and folk roots. On his new album, “River Of Time,” he revisits those roots and shows that he possesses a side that those who have only heard him in Jefferson Airplane may not be aware of.Before joining Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen was a regular in the San Francisco beatnik coffee shop scene, playing traditional blues and folk songs on his acoustic guitar. On “River Of Time,” Kaukonen doesn’t pick up an electric guitar-the album showcases his acoustic fingerpicking and his gritty, bluesy voice. It seems like whenever an “Americana” roots rock album comes out, it’s destined to be compared to “Music From Big Pink” by The Band, since it remains the standard for all albums in the genre today. “River Of Time” was recorded in Levon Helm’s (drums and vocals in The Band) home studio, in Woodstock, NY. The album was recorded just down the street from “Music From Big Pink,” and Levon lends his talent to the album, playing drums on a few of the songs. Helm’s drumming is sparse, but perfect. On the traditional country tune, “Trouble In Mind,” the band is just finishing up the song when Helm’s freewheeling drumming launches them into a raucous acoustic jam instead. Like this song, the whole album has an organic, informal feel to it. The album sounds like a group of friends relaxing on a back porch or around a campfire in the woods, just playing feel-good country rock tunes. What’s different is that this group of friends is unusually talented.

Besides Helm, Kaukonen also enlists the help of mandolin-extraordinaire Barry Mitterhoff and Larry Campbell, the most talented man in Americana roots music today. Just within the last decade, Campbell has toured with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, and Phil Lesh & Friends, playing lead guitar in addition to mandolin, pedal steel guitar, dobro, cittern and more. Besides playing a dozen instruments on the album, Campbell produces the album and does a great job giving it a rustic, wistful, warm sound. Campbell’s wife, Theresa Williams, who is an accomplished singer and also tours with Levon Helm and Phil Lesh and Friends, also appears on the album, singing duets with Kaukonen on “Nashville Blues” and “Preachin’ On The Old Campground.”

The album opens with “Been So Long,” a song written by Kaukonen that he recorded with Hot Tuna in 1971. However, it reappears on “River Of Time” in a different format, with emphasis on Kaukonen’s eerie fingerpicking and vocals and Campbell’s terrific mandolin playing. “Cracks In The Finish,” an autobiographical song written by Kaukonen, is another highlight. It features some beautiful instrumental work by Kaukonen on acoustic guitar and Larry Campbell on fiddle along with Levon’s funky drumming. Kaukonen credits Reverend Gary Davis as his biggest guitar influence and pays tribute to him by covering “There’s A Bright Side Somewhere.” Kaukonen also covers the Grateful Dead’s “Operator” and Merle Haggard’s “More Than My Old Guitar” on the album. He does them both justice – the latter especially. The album is a very well assembled collection of six Kaukonen originals with various covers that sound unique and fresh yet familiar all at the same time.

For those who have only heard Kaukonen in Jefferson Airplane, this album reveals a wildly different side of him. However, for those who have followed his career closer, this album is not anything radically new. Starting with Hot Tuna’s self-titled album, Kaukonen has released several acoustic blues album similar to “River Of Time.” But even though the album isn’t anything groundbreaking or new doesn’t mean that it’s not worth hearing. Kaukonen’s voice has aged like fine wine, and he sounds richer and more soulful than ever right now. He has also evolved as a musician, relying less on deft fingerpicked guitar solos and more on vocals, lyrics, and the subtle contributions of other musicians. As a result his music has become less showy and more wholesome. “River Of Time” won’t have much commercial success, but it is as good as anything else Kaukonen has ever done and is an album that any fan of acoustic blues, folk or country music will enjoy immensely.