Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December 14: Hot Tuna, "Keep On Truckin'"

Artist: Hot Tuna
Song: "Keep On Truckin'"
Album: Burgers
Year: 1972

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Though they are very few and far between, there are a handful of musicians who throughout their careers have proven that they have a level of creativity which is truly limitless.  In many cases, these performers not only write some of the greatest songs in history, but they are also members of one (if not many) of similarly revered bands.  This has rarely been more obvious than during the final years of the 1960's and early 1970's, as members of a handful of different groups found themselves working with one another, and a few "super groups" formed, releasing some of the finest "one off" albums in history.  Yet there was one band that became far more than just a temporary affair, though the initial intent of the group was just that.  Originally formed as little more than a side project of Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane, as the 1970's moved forward, it became more and more the central focus of the two, and in the process forced their previous band into one of many large structural changes.  Taking a far more mellow and often acoustic approach than what they were doing within the confines of Jefferson Airplane, the team fo Casady and Kaukonen recorded a number of the most beautiful songs of the decade, and there are few songs that more accurately represent the sound of Hot Tuna, nor stand as iconic as the bands' fantastic 1972 track, "Keep On Truckin'."

The entire mood of "Keep On Truckin'," as well as the overall musical direction of Hot Tuna are clearly evident within the opening refrain of the song, as the light, winding acoustic progression played by Jorma Kaukonen has a completely distinctive sound.  It is the way that the riff perfectly balances folk, country and bluegrass sounds, yet manages to also maintain a very youthful and vibrant tone.  This completely unique spirit is heightened by the violin from "Papa" John Creach, and there has rarely been a finer mixture of this instrument into a non-classic setting.  There is a fantastic swing that comes through in his playing, and it gives an "Old West" feeling as it blends seamlessly with the piano from Nick Buck.  Throughout "Keep On Truckin'," it is the way that the melody seems to bounce off of the walls in celebration which makes it impossible to not become caught up in the track, and it is also this superb interplay between instruments that shows the massive level of talent within the players.  Yet it is also the rhythm section found on "Keep On Truckin'" that pushes the song to such heights, and the team of bassist Jack Casady and drummer Sammy Piazza were able to bring an entirely new mood and approach to the musical backbone.  Mixing together the funky groove from the bass with one of the most creative percussive performances in history, one can find massive influence from their playing here all across a wide range of later bands.

Yet when one considers everything around Hot Tuna, perhaps the most significant is when one realizes just how underutilized the voice of Jorma Kaukonen was within the confines of Jefferson Airplane.  Much like the music over which he is singing, there is a fantastic blending of styles and sounds within Kaukonen's voice, and the way that he slides across the verses is one of the most pure pleasures ever captured on tape.  There is a relaxed, yet confident freedom within his voice that makes the rest of the song sound like nothing more than a group of friends sitting around jamming, and it is this upbeat tone which pushes "Keep On Truckin'" into a class all its own.  Furthermore, it is the way that the vocals "sit" on top of the rest of the music which makes this track sound far more complete than the bands' previous efforts, and this is true of the entire album.  Working in perfect harmony with both the vocals and the spirited music, the lyrics (written by Bob Carleton) to "Keep On Truckin'" have a loose, positive feel to them that completely grabs the listener.  Styled in a folk-blues formation, one can pull a number of interpretations from the words, and yet at the same time it is the overall feeling of joy that comes through in every word which serves as the ideal finishing touch to this unique fusion of various styles.

Looking at "Keep On Truckin'" as a representation of not only the band, but more specifically the Burgers album, one can make a strong case that the record marks the most important transition in the history of the group.  It is the more complete sound each song has, as well as the finer construction and performances that make it understandable why Hot Tuna would soon become the main focus for the team of Kaukonen and Casady, and yet this record easily holds up on its own, regardless of their previous musical work.  All across the record, one can experience the vibrant sounds and singing that quickly endeared the group to massive audiences; and even after nearly forty years, songs like "Keep On Truckin'" have lost none of their appeal.  It is due to the honesty in performance and the sheer talent within Hot Tuna that makes the track able to hold up after so many years, as it fits in perfectly within the modern world of music.  The way that "Keep On Truckin'" bounces and swings is unlike any other recording of the era, and it serves as proof that truly great songs always find a way to transcend musical preference as well as time itself.  Whether it is due to the absolutely dazzling, almost whimsical musical arrangement or the subtlety strong singing, there is simply no other song in history quite like Hot Tuna's brilliant 1972 recording, "Keep On Truckin'."

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