By Scott McLennan
These tunes are not just good to listen to, but also serve a purpose by sending a message, whether it be to raise a voice in protest or entice reflection.
The River Flows, John Hurlbut and Jorma Kaukonen
This is one of those rare records whose exquisite musical journey is propelled by a palpable sense of conscience.
While Kaukonen is well-known to guitar freaks and fans of psychedelic rock and sublime blues, the album’s top-billed Hurlbut is something of a mystery artist unless you’ve been tuning in to the weekly “Quarantine Concerts” streamed on YouTube from the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio.
Kaukonen and his wife turned the ranch into a guitar camp and performance center in 1989. Hurlbut, a fine guitarist in his own right, is the venue’s manager.
Kaukonen was sidelined in April from going on tour as a solo artist or playing in Hot Tuna with his musical sidekick of 50 years, bassist Jack Casady. As a response, he set up the YouTube livestream series; he continues to perform just about every Saturday night. On the series’ second show, Kaukonen brought out Hurlbut to sing “Angel from Montgomery” as a tribute to John Prine, who had died earlier in the week. The chemistry between the two musicians was luminous, and Hurlbut’s sit-ins have become regular feature of the Quarantine Concerts.
The River Flows grew out of Hurlbut’s weekly performances, and the disc mirrors the arrangement on the shows. Kaukonen is content to be the accompanist, responsible for solos and flourishes while Hurlbut sings and guides the songs with his steady rhythmic playing.
While the Prine tune did not make this record, most of the selections on the album were first aired during the Quarantine Concerts, including the impressive kick-off track, a cover of The Byrds’ “Ballad of Easy Rider.”
Before they get to the opening lyric that supplies this album with its title, Kaukonen and Hurlbut stretch out on their instruments. Kaukonen’s lengthy solo is one of his signature sonic mandalas, an elaborate construction full of beautifully woven notes and phrasings that inspires via gentle persuasion, guided by a steady hand. The guy who blew your mind with the instrumental brilliance of “Embryonic Journey,” “Water Song,” and “Mann’s Fate” obviously has plenty left to say with his guitar — even as he closes in on his 80th birthday later this month.
As Kaukonen launches off, Hurlbut holds down a hypnotic groove. The two guitarists spin out elemental psychedelic bliss, free of electronic gimmicks and studio tricks. This is just two guys, two acoustic guitars, and some microphones (with expert production by Justin Guip, better known as Hot Tuna’s drummer).
The record proceeds with songs that shift from the hopeful to the despairing, occasionally embracing the bittersweet. And that’s what I mean by conscience; the tunes are not just good to listen to but also serve a purpose by sending a message, whether it be to raise a voice in protest or entice reflection.
Hurlbut’s performance resonates with emotional sincerity; his singing sounds like it flows from a guy who has seen a few things, good and bad.
The pair give fresh voice to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and the George Jones hit “Choices,” bringing together the joy of redemption and the sorrow of sin for an illustrative one-two punch. Hurlbut and Kaukonen then use Dillard and Clark’s “Kansas City Southern” as an excuse to venture into a rollicking blues blowout about chafing against one’s surroundings (hold that thought).
Hurlbut finds the resonant and relevant core of Ry Cooder’s “Across the Borderline,” a harrowing portrayal of immigrants looking for a better life in “the land of broken promises.” He then celebrates the life and art of singer/songwriter/guitarist Spencer Bohren, whom the album is dedicated to. He was a frequent performer and instructor at Fur Peace Ranch.
Hurlbut first dives into Bohren’s whimsical country poke of “Travelin’,” with Kaukonen contributing some fine picking. In stark contrast to the restlessness of “Kansas City Southern,” Hurlbut expertly lays bare the tender heart of Bohren’s “Homestead,” a tune that reminiscences about the strength and strains of familial bonds.
Hurlbut’s original, “Someone’s Calling,” ends the record much as it began: the two guitarists engage in a lengthy musical conversation that settles into the contemplative before Hurlbut supplies a lovely message about relationships that nurture and sustain us. These two musicians have most certainly answered each other’s call to mutual sustenance.
Special vinyl editions of The River Flows were released on Record Store Day last month. They are being sold exclusively at independent record stores. The album will be available in additional formats on Dec. 25 online here.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.