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Hot Tuna, Beacon Theatre, NYC: Do not go gentle November 30, 2002

Posted by Anton A in American music, Hot Tuna.
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Hot Tuna.  Does simply hearing that name trigger the same thrill in your nerves that it does in mine?

I’m sitting here looking back on 54 years on this planet and realizing that Jack & Jorma have been an integral part of my concert-going life for 35 years now, starting back when Jefferson Airplane were touring the college gym circuit on their way to the scaling the fuzzed-out pinnacles of acid rock.  A year later they’d become a powerhouse of a band, sending those unique psychedelic textures out into the farthest corners of sports arenas across the country. 

Then the Airplane crashed & burned and Hot Tuna wriggled from the wreckage.  I was lucky enough to see one of the very first Tuna gigs with the incomparable Papa John Creach at Winterland in San Francisco.  I watched them morph into one of the hardest-edged bands in America during what Jorma now jokingly calls “Hot Tuna: The Metal Years.”  Tuna shows in Central Park in the 1970s were a time for getting blasted out of your skull & having your senses seared with blistering bass & guitar tones that no one else even tried to find.  If you were there, you know what I mean, & if you weren’t, I wish I could take you back to that time for one more show.

The band continued to evolve in the 1980s and beyond, pushed by Jorma’s ongoing bent for traditional American music & blues & Rev. Gary Davis-style fingerpicking, and kept mining that rare blend of what I think of as backwoods psychedelia on alternating electric & acoustic tours. 

Jack did occasional tours and recordings with Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation.  Following my oft-repeated rule of life, “Never miss a chance to see Jack,” I caught every one, even the debacle with original Airplane vocalist Signe Toly Anderson, who kept forgetting lyrics.  That Starship tour also was the last for Papa John, who was a walking ghost at that point – actually he could scarcely walk, two people had to carry him out & seat him on his stool – but his rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, when he stood up in the middle of the song, staggered alone to a mike and, wailing on the violin the whole way, exclaimed “I’m walkin!  I’m walkin!” was an emotional moment I’ll never forget.

So a Tuna show these days is as much a pilgrimage, to celebrate bygone days & ghosts of the unique body of music that this circle of musicians has given us, as it is just one more damn good night.  Acoustic Tuna ain’t rock & roll, it’s down-home sittin’ & pickin’ & shit-eatin’ grinnin’ foot-stompin’ music.  If your head’s pointed in the right direction for that sort of thing when they’re in town, you’ll know that there’s still nothing finer.

At the Beacon – an incredible gilt-edged friezed & frescoed Art Deco riot of a theater, it’s worth going to almost any show there just to see the place if you’ve never been – last night, Tuna brought it to New York one more time.  We had seats in the second row of the loge on the left, a superb vantage point.  Jorma, Jack, & sometime Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano (an integral part of electric Tuna who occasionally joins them at acoustic gigs) were seated right to left at stage center, no props other than the small amps at their sides.  They would be joined for about 10 songs by Barry Mitterhoff, a guy who shreds & bends mandolin strings like a metal guitarist; he brought another strong instrumental voice to every song he played.

The set ran for nearly two hours:

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out
Trouble In Mind
New Song (For The Morning)
Vampire Woman
Death Don’t Have No Mercy In This Land
Do Not Go Gentle
Serpent Of Dreams
Red River Blues
Waiting For A Train
That’s Alright Mama
Living In The Moment
Embryonic Journey
Good Shepherd
I See The Light
99 Year Blues
Last Train Out
I Am The Light Of This World
What Are They Doing In Heaven Today
Just Because

encore: Hesitation Blues

Highlights –

Serpent Of Dreams had been in my mind all week. I really hoped they’d play it; amazingly, they did.

Michael Falzarano introduced That’s Alright Mama with a brief tale of when they visited Graceland; they inspected The King’s record collection & were thrilled to find a copy of First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, & so the next song would be their tribute to Elvis.  Later, Michael noted that he written Last Train Out in memory of the late Allen Woody (Gov’t Mule’s original bassist).  Michael sang both songs and was great, I’ve always liked the character of his voice & the rhythmic drive he adds to the Tuna ensemble.

Barry Mitterhoff played on Red River Blues thru Good Shepherd, & then the last four songs, if I remember rightly.  (I should have taken better notes, but couldn’t tear myself away from the music enough to be that precise.)  He was superb throughout.

Jack ripped out extended solos on Good Shepherd, 99 Year Blues and Light Of This World, each one well thought out, starting with spare notes, ending with fingers flying, striking upper-fret bass chords in just the right places.  Masterful.  The crowd gave an ovation to every one before the songs ended.  There may be more virtuostic bassists in this world but no one plays it quite like Jack.

Jorma – his isn’t an easy voice to like, but it has a lot of character.  He hit his share of clams during the night (unlike Jack, who is so clean & precise), but as Buck Dharma says, “I never mind the clams, they let you know it’s live,”  and neither do I.  Jorma’s fingerpicking is staggeringly accomplished, and his spiky blues leads take me away to other times and places.  Tuna music, acid-drenched electric or quietly acoustic, has always been about tones & textures & sheer musicianship, with Jack & Jorma at the heart of it.  It’s changed and gone in many directions over the decades, and that heart still has a strong beat.