Review Summary: Lost blues pickings from Jefferson Airplane guitarist.
It's hard not to wonder sometimes that the music scene selects musicians for a rise to fame on some basis other than musical ability. It's clear that the matter of who generates record sales isn't meritocratic - some artists just get their lucky break, but for every lucky one there are thousands more of equal ability toiling away in the background. Jorma Kaukonen, formerly of Jefferson Airplane, enjoyed his fair share of fame back in the day (playing at Woodstock is something many musicians would envy), but his solo career has gone criminally under-appreciated. Quah, a 'lost' record of sorts, demonstrates an impressively intricate picking style, laid-back vocals, and quirky pop songwriting of an extremely high standard, and truly has a claim to be one of the best acoustic blues albums of the 70s.
The 'feel' of the album is something that can't really be described in words - it needs to be heard. Right from the opener, 'Genesis', Kaukonen's reverb-drenched guitar and smooth vocals take you away to some far away, nostalgic place - strings add to the textures without sounding gaudy or pretentious. It's a gorgeous tribute to the past, with the desire to take what companionship there has been, and continue it into the future - a desire we all share. 'Genesis' is also the perfect example of how far a well-chosen chord sequence can take you - the one short verse is simply repeated with different words, with a brief guitar interlude between verses. 'Song For The North Star' is another folky pop-blues in the same vein, and confirms Kaukonen's instinctive feel for a delicious yet simple melody.
The pop efforts on the album, aside from the two just mentioned, do often stray into schmaltz a little too frequently for comfort, and the goofy crooner numbers, with guest vocalist Tom Hobson, sometimes wear thin ('Sweet Hawaiian Sunshine'). But it's on the pure blues numbers, where Kaukonen's startlingly complex guitar arrangements come to the fore, that we are invited to appreciate his true genius. The acoustic guitar sound is nothing short of revolutionary for the mid 1970s, even before the record's recent remastering - it's full, lush, sharp and crisp all in one and combines those oh-so-familiar blues licks every guitarist knows with folk and country undertones. Kaukonen exhibits some blues classics ('Another Man Done Gone', 'Police Dog Blues') alongside his own credible blues compositions.
You might ask why such an album is even relevant or worth reviewing in 2012 - upon release it sank without trace, and never sold as much as Airplane, or Kaukonen's acclaimed blues band Hot Tuna. But this is a beautiful and affecting album, showcasing some of the most skilful and accessible acoustic blues picking to ever come out of the 70s. Perhaps it's for the best that it's remained underground, because this makes discovering it for yourself even more rewarding.