Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Hot Tuna - 1971 LP First Pull Up, Then Pull Down - 'We Used To Melt'

Sitting on the turntable platter today in the ‘rock room’ is Hot Tuna’s June 1971 LP, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, the duo’s follow up record to the previous year’s acoustic based debut. Recorded live in April of 1971 the album continues a theme of Jorma Kaukonen’s and Jack Casady exploration of traditional and blues tunes sprinkled in with a curated selection of Jorma originals. The central differentiating factor of the first and second records is that, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down is fully electrified. The famed self-titled debut spotlighted Jorma, Jack and blues harmonica specialist Will Scarlett playing live in an acoustic setting in contrast to the bombastic performances Jorma and Jack had just left behind in the Jeffferson Airplane. The follow up record added drummer Sammy Piazza and blues fiddler and Bay area favorite Papa John Creach on electric violin to the school of musical fish. The first two albums could easily be referred to as Hot Tuna Acoustic and Hot Tuna Electric.

Hot Tuna’s manifold musical influences developed from both Jorma and Jack’s early coffee house folk days and their psychedelically induced playing with the Airplane. Hot Tuna was and has always been the culmination of their friendship and the expression of their numerous musical tastes. This LP and the aforementioned self titled debut set the brick foundation for all of their future musical exploits.

First Pull Up, Then Pull Down opens with ‘John’s Other’, a Papa John instrumental composition, and a horny jam session. Immediately I think of the ‘Dirty Mac’s jam from the ‘Rolling Stone’s Rock and Roll Circus with violinist Irvy Gitlis (as they are both a 12 bar). The band members each take the opportunity to solo over a bed of hot rock. First Papa takes a slick series of violin quotes, then followed by Jorma who puts a buzz saw to wood with a delightfully fuzzy guitar solo. Scarlett blasts some blues harp before again being taken over by Papa John. A straight ahead extended rock and roll opener, this track straddles the boundary between Hot Tuna of the sea and Jefferson Airplane of the sky.

The following cut is a cover of Reverend Gary Davis’s “Candyman” a major influence of Kaukonen and of music in general. While an acoustic version would appear as a bonus cut on the Hot Tuna debut reissue, here the song is given a country funkified rendition. A whiney harp by Will Scarlett takes center stage blowing over the front porch rocking chair creaking of the rhythm section. The deft concoction of harp and violin are the sugary covering over the rich rustic center. Jorma’s wonderfully reedy vocals lend a sepia tone to the proceedings.  Midway through the song Jack Casady takes the classic blues and dismantles the structure into a well-timed, chord riddled and looping bass solo. The music swells and lands perfectly into the central melody.

A Jorma Kaukonen original comes next with, “Been So Long”.  A chunky palm muted introductory guitar scrub signals the band to fall into place. Jack drops a stone into the water letting the ripples reverberate. To the ‘rock room’s’ ears, there may have been a rerecording on the vocals as they sound almost studio quality (in addition to an extra guitar lick). A cut that has lasted for the duration of ‘Hot Tuna’s career this song contains all of the hallmarks of Kaukonen's best songs. Dynamic guitar and a euphoric middle eight highlight this early Hot Tuna standard.

‘Want You To Know’ continues in the same vein, bathed in a bitter drink, thick smoke and dimmed lights. Jorma begins the tune with some delicate Delta blues finger picking before a steady snare hit and earnest fiddle swells coagulate the beat. Invisible dusty feet stomp collectively as the curtain is pulled back to reveal Papa John scribbling historical lines over the twisted frame of traditional music.

The second side of the record begins with another Reverend Gary Davis composition and an in concert favorite of Hot Tuna fans, 'Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning'. Sadly, lyrically the song remains as relevant as it was when it was born. This song was also given an acoustic reading on the first Hot Tuna record and here it is given a 100 watt jolt. Jorma plucks out the song’s introductory heartbeat before the band flares around him into a honky tonk groove. Jorma’s vocals sound slightly menacing as his picking mirrors the melody. Extended to past eight minutes, the band peruses each nook and cranny of the musical framework. Jorma and Papa John work in conjunction tugging on each end of the verse until snapping back into a collaborative groove. Casady hits the root appropriately but dances around the edges while tastefully joining in disseminating a taste of the lead melody. Midway through the song Piazza’s tempo doubles and at five minutes in Kaukonen stomps the fuzz box with Casady slamming his thick four strings. Papa John, Scarlett, and Jorma wrap around a central pole, streaming flash paper melodies that rise, fall and dissipate in musical community. The group reaches an appropriate peak before falling into the final verse and conclusion.
A blues classic and main stay of the Tuna repertoire ‘Never Happen No More’ comes next. Written by Blind Blake in 1927, the ‘rag’ tells the tale of a down on his luck depression era man, the perfect fit for Jorma and Jack. Papa John is the leader of the band, laying down a mournful yet slippery consonance to Kaukonen’s rag time picking. Similar to the groups cover of ‘Want You to Know’ the band pulls the most important elements of the song and hold them up to the light for inspection.
The album closes with an extended reading of ‘Come Back Baby’, a song Jorma had been using as a spotlight piece in Airplane performances. (the Woodstock version is particularly fine) The original version was written by Walter Davis in 1940, but a number of cover versions took place in the 1960’s including well known versions by Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. The closing version for First Pull Up, Then Pull Down sets a swampy groove with Casady answering Kaukonen’s guitar with rotund thumps pounded into the empty spaces. Again, Papa John adorns the rhythm with a martellato bow attack. Once in a while Papa John elicits a colorful dropping from above in a dizzying array of descending sound. While taken at a more patient reading than some Jefferson Airplane versions, the blues form is explored by all the instrumentalists conjuring up a dirt stomping version. At around 6 minutes Jorma pours some spicy wah-wah into the stew giving a kick to everyone involved.

‘Hot Tuna’s 1971 album First Pull Up, Then Pull Down is a proper ‘Volume II’ to their debut acoustic album. The record illustrates the other side of the band’s mirror to listeners allowing them a view of their influences and abilities. Perhaps not the 'best' Hot Tuna recording, but one well worthy of your listening time. Throughout the later 1970’s the band would walk the razors edge balancing their musical personality between rock and psych ‘metal’, but always keeping the acoustic blues and electric ragtime sensibilities firmly in their grasp. The relationship between Jorma and Jack endures of 50 years on, and while the musicians and friends they work with under the banner of ‘Hot Tuna’ revolve with every trip around the sun, the principals remain.

2 comments:

  1. Nice review of First Pull Up, Then Pull Down. I have to say that I did not like this album when it first came out. I was used to seeing Hot Tuna as an acoustic band, and seeing Jack & Jorma electric in the Airplane (I first started seeing the airplane when Signe and Skip were still aprt of the band).

    After the acoustic playing (both live & the 1st LP) FPUTPD seemed like over indulgent jamming. Sometime in the late 80's I pulled this album out and gave it a spin. I was surprised by how good it was. I think how we hear an album is more dependent on our expectations than we realize.

    Thanks for the write up, a very enjoyable read.

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  2. Thanks again for commenting Bob and for the kind words. That is AMAZING you were lucky enough to see the early line up of the Airplane. I am sure you have some great stories. Thank you again for sharing!

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