Album Review: John Hurlbut and Jorma Kaukonen, ‘The River Flows’

by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley

Folk Alley Album Review John Hurlbut Jorma Kaukonen The River Flows

Back in April, Jorma Kaukonen kicked off what has become an almost weekly livestream series on YouTube titled “Quarantine Concerts,” broadcast from his Fur Peace Ranch in southern Ohio, as a response to being sidelined from touring. On the second show of the series, John Hurlbut, Kaukonen’s long-time friend and the manager of the venue, joined Kaukonen and played John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” to honor Prine, who had died that week. It was a radiant moment, with Kaukonen’s shimmering and crisp leads flowing around and over Hurlbut’s steady rhythm and resilient vocals. The spark that lit up the stage on that show ignited a fire that continued to burn brightly the rest of the year as Hurlbut joined Kaukonen regularly and the two friends played some of their favorite songs.

The River Flows rolls out of those shows, cascading over us with streams of brilliant guitar work. The album kicks off with a luxuriant version of “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” with Hurlbut providing a fertile river bed of rhythm guitar over which Kaukonen’s crystalline, inventive lead lines curl, bend, and float; the long introduction allows Kaukonen to follow the lead of the song, and just as a river meanders around its bends and crooks, he sails effortlessly on Hurlbut’s rhythm, carrying us further and further up river until we nestle in the safe port of Hurlbut’s vocals. “The Ballad of Easy Rider” illustrates the richness of the album, revealing the depth of the duo’s musical friendship and the ways they respond intuitively to each other’s musical direction.

Kaukonen’s ringing leads shimmer through the duo’s version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” as Hurlbut’s durable vocals evoke the pleading urgency of the song. It’s a song for our times, of course, and this version comes closest to capturing the soulful entreaty of the song. Hurlbut’s and Kaukonen’s version reaches down into our souls just as it should to remind of the beatific character of expectation. Hurlbut’s and Kaukonen’s spare, almost meditative, version of George Jones’s “Choices” captures the pang of regret and the resignation of acceptance with a shrewd recognition of life’s ambivalence, while their version of Gene Clark’s “Kansas City Southern” delivers a wistful acoustic blues. The pair’s spacious take on Ry Cooder’s “Across the Borderline” allows the lyrics about yearning to find hope in a land that turns out to be filled only with broken promises to resonate poignantly. Hurlbut and Kaukonen pay tribute to guitarist Spencer Bohren—who died in June 2019 and who taught at Fur Peace Ranch and also collaborated with artists from Dr. John to Bill Kirchen, among others—with takes on two of Bohren’s songs: the chuggling folk blues “Travelin’” and the moving ballad of life and loss and love “The Old Homestead.” The album closes with Hurlbut’s original song “Someone’s Calling,” a lilting meditation on those we’ve lost and the ways they live in our hearts and whose spirits are palpable.

The River Flows is perfectly titled because Hurlbut’s and Kaukonen’s brilliant, dazzling guitars and vocals indeed flow over us with crystalline beauty and wave after wave of cascading notes and surging chords. These songs wash over us, transporting us with their clarifying beauty and genius.

The River Flows is available now here at Amazon and Apple Music.

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