River of Time
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2009, Volume 16, #4
Written by John Metzger
Fri April 10, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
For as long as he has been writing songs, Jorma Kaukonen has drawn heavily from the pioneers of folk and blues. Since issuing Blue Country Heart, his Grammy-nominated effort from 2002, however, he has seemed particularly interested in turning back the pages of time in order to place a bright spotlight upon the artists who long have held sway over his work. Throughout the endeavor, with help from the likes of Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, Kaukonen revealed the cornerstones of his stylistic approach by tracing an arc across the music scene of America’s post-Depression era. Stars in My Crown, Kaukonen’s 2007 debut for Red House, continued this conversation. Although it didn’t boast the same all-star cast as its predecessor, it successfully extended his career-long quest to fuse past and present into a statement that was all his own.
River of Time, Kaukonen’s latest offering, follows a template similar to the one that he established with Blue Country Heart and Stars in My Crown. Yet, it hardly feels formulaic. Mixing original compositions with a series of nuggets that were penned by others — including Rev. Gary Davis’ There’s a Bright Side Somewhere, the Delmore Brothers’ Nashville Blues, and Mississippi John Hurt’s Preachin’ on the Old Camp Ground — Kaukonen once again concocts a series of laid-back, down-home grooves that highlight his sublime, sparkling musicianship as well as his impeccable taste.
Under the watchful eye of producer Larry Campbell, Kaukonen performs on River of Time with various configurations of his backing band. He tackles Merle Haggard’s More than My Old Guitar as part of a sextet that features mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Levon Helm, while on Roy Book Binder’s Another Man Done a Full Go Round, he is accompanied solely by Campbell. In crafting albums such as River of Time, there is, of course, a natural tendency to take an academic approach to recording. However, as he has done time and again throughout his career, Kaukonen’s unwavering enthusiasm lends a fresh perspective to the older songs, while his distinctive style makes room for his own compositions to slip seamlessly alongside them.
Perhaps, the lesson that was learned from the outings of the late 1960s and early 1970s is that the things that work during a live performance don’t necessarily translate to a studio setting. Because of the push-and-pull effect that an audience can have on a show’s energy, the level of risk is elevated in concert, which, in turn, makes the former locale better suited for extended improvisation. Recording studios, then, are places where material can be refined and honed, as focal points are established, ones that also leave room for future jam sessions to explore. It’s no wonder that some of the better rock ’n‘ roll efforts from the era — such Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead — emphasize songs, styles, and concepts rather than extemporaneous, long-winded forays into the unknown.
Unfortunately, few rock bands with a penchant for improvisation, then or now, have taken this lesson to heart. Younger outfits, in particular, seem susceptible not only to putting the cart before the horse but also to masking the deficiencies that linger in their compositions by stretching them to tremendous lengths well before they are ready. Without a doubt, these groups could learn a thing or two from their elders. Kaukonen, much like Bob Dylan, has a healthy level of respect for his influences. At the same time, though, he doesn’t allow it to stifle his creativity or thwart his best intentions. Within the 13 tracks on River of Time, ideas from the past are presented by Kaukonen in his voice. Although further elaboration upon them is unnecessary, the doors are left open for future explorations.
By the time that he had issued Modern Times, the third and final effort in a trilogy of albums that also included Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, Dylan not only had concluded his nearly two-decade-long pilgrimage that fully restored his relevance, but he also had achieved a new pinnacle in his career. Modern Times, more than its predecessors, was a relaxed and easy-going affair that allowed Dylan to travel to the past via a wormhole. Once there, he proceeded to rip the precursors to rock ’n‘ roll and popular culture up by the roots. The result was that Dylan set himself free.
In a sense, the same could be said of Kaukonen’s recent forays. Blue Country Heart, Stars in My Crown, and River of Time revolve around a similar slate of ideas, and just like Dylan, Kaukonen sounds completely comfortable within his surroundings, particularly on the latter effort. The unassuming ambience of his material ought not to be confused with a lack of intensity, either. Instead, the naturalness of Kaukonen’s performance is designed to do one thing — serve the music.
Whether he is revisiting songs that long ago became staples in his repertoire — such as Been So Long and Trouble in Mind — or unveiling pensive instrumentals — like Izze’s Lullaby and A Walk with Friends — Kaukonen effectively utilizes River of Time to touch upon the full scope of his career while also providing context for his output. It has been more than 40 years since he rose to prominence with Jefferson Airplane. Although his artistic vision no longer could be considered embryonic, Kaukonen — remarkable as it may seem — still approaches his work with fresh eyes and ears.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box