Fifty years ago, a little ensemble called Jefferson Airplane first took flight in San Francisco. And the original band’s virtuoso guitarist Jorma Kaukonen is still flying, releasing a new solo album Ain’t No Hurry.
A Little History
After a few lineup changes, the band first heard on the debut 1966 LP Jefferson Airplane Takes Off included old buds Kaukonen (guitar) and Jack Casady (bass), who had hooked up with Marty Balin (vocals), Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), Skip Spence (drums), and singer Signe Toly Anderson. In those days, Kaukonen told me in a recent interview, nobody thought the band was psychedelic. “Nothing psychedelic existed yet.” Instead, the outfit considered itself a folk/rock group loosely inspired by The Byrds.
Then Spence and Anderson departed; drummer Spencer Dryden and Grace Slick were in. The rest, including landmark performances at the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont, is rock legend.
Kaukonen says that during his run with Airplane, his lengthy electric guitar experiments were inspired by the band’s practice sessions. “We used to rehearse eight to nine hours a day,” he recalls. But he was also responsible for including material that drew from his roots. Such songs included the acoustic tour de force “Embryonic Journey” and his arrangement of the old traditional “Good Shepard.” His interest in finger-picking led first to performing acoustic sets with Casady as part of Airplane gigs, and then with the duo’s longtime splinter group, Hot Tuna.
Ain’t No Hurry
You can hear the virtuosity of “Embryonic Journey,” the old-time feeling of “Good Shepard,” and the tradition of Hot Tuna on the new solo album. For example, the first song released to promote the album was a reworking of Hot Tuna’s “Barroom Crystal Ball.” “After we did the first sessions for the song,” Kaukonen says, “Producer Larry Campbell said the only bass player for the song would be Jack Casady. I agreed and gave Jack a call. He said I shouldn’t do an old Hot Tuna record and refused to play on the new version. I simply said, `Jack, I played on your record. Now, you come play on mine.'” So, once again, we get to hear a collaboration that began even before Airplane days.
But, no surprise, Ain’t in No Hurry reaches even further back in time in both style and substance. Two tracks are old standards re-worked by Kaukonen, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Of the latter, Kaukonen says “I’ve been playing that one for 50 years, but just never recorded it.” (Evidence of this is a rough version Kaukonen and Janis Joplin recorded together on a tape never intended for release, but has been long available on various Joplin compilations.)
In terms of echoes of the softer side of the Airplane, one might think of “Good Shepard” when hearing “Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me,” although the latter has a far more whimsical and ironic approach. “Seasons in the Field” seems like an obvious meditation on how Kaukonen now feels about the Summer of Love, a song that contains gentle lyrics about “precious moments” that naturally gave way to autumn. More metaphorical with a broader theme, “The Other Side of the Mountain” ruminates on the journey up to the peak, and then the trek down we all experience.
Despite the very old, old school arrangements, many as country-fried as an Appalachian bluegrass jam, Ain’t in No Hurry includes a healthy selection of other new Kaukonen originals like the confessional, romantic “In My Dreams” and the loping title song where Kaukonen takes us on a spiritual train trip.
The players that contribute to the personal, intimate feel of the album include Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin), Teresa Williams (backing and harmony vocals), and the rhythm section of Myron Hart and Justin Guip. Producer Larry Campbell added such a variety of strings to the mix that I asked Kaukonen if there was any instrument Campbell can’t play. After a long pause, Kaukonen responded he couldn’t think of anything.
In 2015, Kaukonen will be on an extensive tour to promo Ain’t in No Hurry. But if this is Jefferson Airplane’s 50th anniversary, is there any chance for some sort of reunion? Nope. Kaukonen says he wouldn’t mind some sort of sit-down conversations with acoustic guitars, but no concerts. “I don’t remember any of those songs,” he says, and he doesn’t want to get invested in the rehearsals and machinery that would be involved. Besides, Grace wouldn’t do it and no Airplane events would be possible without her. “Thanks Grace,” Kaukonen laughs.
So forget acid tests and incense sticks and instead enjoy Ain’t in No Hurry, especially when you’re relaxed and, well, ain’t in no hurry. It’s an inviting ride you’ll want to take more than once, particularly if you savor astonishing finger picking licks.
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