Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Jorma Kaukonen with Tom Hobson—
Quah


Released 1974 on Grunt/RCA
The Seth Man, December 2003ce
Even before I picked up the newly reissued/remastered/bonus track-ed version of Jorma Kaukonen’s first solo album “Quah” and took a gander at the recording dates, I had always felt that “Quah” was in many respects a companion piece to Hot Tuna’s highly erratic transitional album, “The Phosphorescent Rat.” Perched right down the middle between their trio of old-tymey blues’n’rag’riffs albums without drums/with Papa John Creach on fiddle (‘Hot Tuna,” “First Pull Up Then Pull Down” and “Burgers”) and the more heavier, electric-based threesome (“America’s Choice,” “Yellow Fever” and “Hoppkorv.”) And although “The Phosphorescent Rat” did have a small clutch of excellent tracks, only two moments of achievement are to be found among the electric rock songs1 alongside a pair of perfectly finger picked acoustic, blues-based instrumentals (“Seaweed Strut” and “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Whisky From?”) as if it sprung forth from the same emotional space as “Quah.” The unnecessary gravy of string/horn arrangements of Tom Salisbury (which were neither psychedelic nor bluesy and their cloying sweetness were really too much for even the most hardened Tuna apologist to take or ignore for the better part of the time) cropped up once too many times over both albums, marking them as elementally the same work.

“Quah” was far more balanced and ultimately a far more satisfying an affair than “The Phosphorescent Rat.” Housed within a characteristic technicolour yawn of a sleeve like a Hot Tuna album, it was recorded between 1972-1974 and produced by Kaukonen’s longtime musical partner, Jack Casady. A showcase for Kaukonen’s acoustic finger-picking blues, it was imbued with an even greater sense of accomplishment and agility than had been previously displayed, due to the tracks being conceived while outside of his then highly tense position within Jefferson Airplane and/or when he and Casady had finally split that scene to pursue Hot Tuna as a full time proposition. Either way, a newfound sense of freedom and exploration of new horizons to be explored was in the air for the guitarist, and “Quah” sallies forth in a like-minded, open manner.

“Genesis” opens the album with a beautiful song of life; one of casting off old ways and Kaukonen’s vocals are about as sweet as they ever would be: the depth of his feeling modulating his usual gruffness into a newborn voice altogether. The string section towards the end is just about the only place on the album where it was set into the distance, so for the moment it’s no bother. “I’ll Be Alright” is the first of two covers of tunes by Reverend Gary Davis on the album, and I still remember the first time I heard Kaukonen perform it live note for note at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey in 1980. This was the period when he had just had a skeletal warrior doing battle with a huge dragon tattooed all across his back, and thinking of this as he performed this track with a bleach blonde rockabilly quiff as his single gold tooth continually caught and reflected back stage lighting conspired to make the words “I’ll be alright someday” ring with more than a sense of simultaneous truth and absurdity. “Song For The North Star” follows, and here The Salisbury Strings edge in greatly although Kaukonen’s confessional performance is heartfelt enough on its own. (In furtherance of the “Phosphorescent Rat”/”Quah” theory, a track called “Letter To The North Star” appears on “Rat” -- another piece dedicated to his wife, Margarerta.)2

Next up is the album’s only instrumental, “I’ll Let You Know Before I Leave,” an ambling country blues that highlights Kaukonen’s dexterity. Following is “Flying Clouds,” a track where his vocals were never gentler but unfortunately the string arrangements take more than a few overblown steps into maudlin realms and you just wind up wishing Kaukonen had dispensed with them altogether. The Trad Arr country blues of “Another Man Done Gone” closes side one with hints of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burnin’” with deftly picked ease and overdubbed slide flourishes. Thematically similar to the imprisonment theme of “Parchment Farm,” its sober observations end the side on a dark, uneasy note in the same vein as “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” did on Hot Tuna’s debut album.

By contrast, side two opens with a reading of Reverend Gary Davis’ devotional hymn, “I Am The Light Of This World” that is burnished to perfection with sunny buoyancy. Continuing with nimble-footedness is Kaukonen’s incredibly detailed cover version of Blind Arthur Blake’s “Police Dog Blues” and makes it seem like a walk in the park as he flows through this two-tiered plectrum exercise with the greatest of ease. “Blue Prelude” is the first of two tracks which features the vocals of Tom Hobson and here Kaukonen’s acoustic is at a crawl pace, as an overdubbed solo is fed through tremulous echo into a stinging imbroglio. “Sweet Hawaiian Sunshine” with Hobson on vocals always was the sole speed bump of side two, but seeing as it’s the penultimate song of the album and the several overdubbed guitars and a dobro slide slur perfectly all over the griddled surface with textured accuracy, it’s sometimes just as well to bleep out the cornpone vocals and let the stringed interplay do the talkin’.

“Hamar Promenade” finishes the album, and it’s the most supernaturally moving moment of the album. “Quah” is worth hearing at least once just for this one song. Even Kaukonen can’t remember what it’s about, except that he wrote it in Norway while on a speed skating excursion with Jack Casady, but I always felt it to be a tremendously powerful and mysterious track with Kaukonen calling on motivation, stamina and the human spirit to shore itself up against the ceaseless opening and re-opening of that succession of unknown doors leading into a future of endless tomorrows...and after all these years, I still don’t know all the lyrics. But even though it’s a dark epic in its own right, it puts a spring to my step Mr. Natural-like every time.



FOOTNOTES:
  1. The opening track “I See The Light” and the mindlessly crushing “Easy Now”: which woulda been right up their with anything off “America’s Choice” or ‘Yellow Fever” had it not been for drummer Sammy Piazza’s hippie inability to power things beyond a pre-lift off proportion instead of being content to just insistently tap the bell of his cymbal in a purely symbolic deliverance of the goods...This was a pity, although it was a masterstroke supreme in comparison to the ill-advised steel drum use that rendered asunder the otherwise kick ass “Livin’ Just For You.”

  2. Of all the bonus tracks added to make this an expanded “Quah” the one of most interest is Kaukonen’s “Lord Have Mercy,” revealing itself after to be no less than an early and far slower version of Hot Tuna’s “Letter To The North Star” that subsequently appeared with full band treatment on “The Phosphorescent Rat”. Here it’s just Kaukonen on acoustic guitar, vocals, no string arrangements and is a wonderfully inspirational instrumental as a result. The instrumental “Midnight In Milpitas” didn’t make the final cut either; lacking the polish of the rest of the tracks, it’s still fine and sprightly stuff. Two other bonus tracks are loaded up with Hobson’s vocals (“Barrier” and the jazz-inflected “No Mail Today”) which somewhat get in the way of some lightning fast Kaukonen picking, particularly on “Barrier.” This is fine by me because in any case, “Lord Have Mercy” is the pick of the litter.