The Jefferson Airplane had one of the most unique musical equations in the history of rock; with Paul Kantner and Grace Slick’s strident messages of political and social change, Marty Balin’s elevated love songs and the vocal cat and mouse game that the three engaged in, there was nothing quite like it. Underpinning all of it though was a muscular and intelligent instrumental machine powered by bassist Jack Casady and guitarist, vocalist Jorma Kaukonen. When those two started exploring their own musical identities with side group Hot Tuna their first two albums were (Hot Tuna and First Up Then Pull Down) – acoustic then electric live albums respectively – that showcased both musicians’ expertise at synthesizing traditional blues into a very respectful yet exhilarating form of high-energy rock (pretty much as Zeppelin, The Stones, The Yardbirds et al did - except Tuna played it a little closer to the blues vest). With their third album and first studio album, 1972’s Burgers, the duo melded their blues authenticity to the psychedelic craftsmanship they learned in the Airplane with stunning results.
Burgers combines both the acoustic blues finger-picking that Kaukonen perfected as a young folk disciple of the genre (I drove him from Denver to Boulder once after an autograph signing and he told me as a young man (pre-Airplane) he moved to Europe in order to follow blues piano great Champion Jack Dupree on tour and sit at the feet of his idol), with the acid drenched electric soloing of the Airplane’s Haight-Ashbury heyday to create a thrilling new type of music that predicted the folk-rock movement which would dominate popular music for the next decade. Every song on Burgers jumps with the excitement of great songs (six Kaukonen originals and three blues covers) and even better arranging and playing. Opening with Kaukonen’s “True Religion” we get the template for the album going forward. Kaukonen begins with a classic blues finger-picking exercise before the band crashes in with Casady’s crushing bass line and jazz violinist Papa John Creach wailing over the proceedings like a fire and brimstone preacher above a crowd of heathens. Then Kaukonen steps up with the ballsiest of electric solos and we get the idea; this isn’t a blues band or a psychedelic rock band, this is some new thing altogether. “Highway Song” follows with a cosmic, hippie road song that makes one yearn for those days. Again, with great, sympathetic production by the band itself and a cast of Airplane production alumni the music finds a new path, unheard and beautiful. Side one rounds out with a 1920’s blues “99 Year Blues” which is again dominated by Creach’s soaring fiddle work and counter-culture friendly lyrics, then the beautiful “Sea Child” which combines one of Kaukonen’s best lyrics with a blitzkrieg of electric guitar and pounding bass. Kaukonen and Cassidy really do define a certain type of musical excellence and dedication to craft that has all but disappeared from the modern rock landscape.
Side two opens with the FM radio favorite “Keep on Truckin’” which never fails to liven up a party. Kaukonen’s subtle, sardonic vocal suits this tale of bad women gone worse to a tee and Creach’s mercury-like soloing makes this song come loose from the moorings of history and feel like a 1920’s juke joint - that is until Kaukonen comes in with one of his most delicious talking guitar solos - wah soaked and nasty. What follows is an example of why Jorma Kaukonen is considered one of the great guitarists of rock. “Water Song” is a breathtaking acoustic instrumental, in the style of his Airplane classic “Embryonic Journey,” except fully realized with a gorgeous cascade of guitar notes flowing over Casady’s fluid, melodic bass line - it is nirvana! “Ode For Billie Dean” gives Kaukonen and Creach a chance to really wail on the album’s hardest song and one that hints at the proto-metal direction that Hot Tuna would take in the later 70’s. Rounding out the album is a song by one of Jorma’s heroes and another of his best original instrumental pieces. Reverend Gary Davis’ “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” proves once and for all Kaukonen’s sympathy for the blues as his vocal and guitar performance are exemplary and he still makes room for signature Papa John fiddle work. “Sunny Day Strut” closes the album beautifully with acoustic and electric guitars in perfect harmony with Cassidy’s powerful bass work. It is ominous and uplifting at the same time.
Hot Tuna has continued to tour and record until the present day, and remain a vital musical experience. They have explored many styles from punk to bluegrass, but no single Tuna album strikes as many perfect notes as Burgers. When life is looking grim and it seems like no silver linings will appear, this is one album I can always count on to lift my spirits.
- Paul Epstein