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Hot Tuna, Beacon Theatre, NYC: Happy 70th, Jorma! December 4, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music, Hot Tuna.
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Hot Tuna took over the Beacon Theatre for two nights this weekend to stage a gala celebration of Jorma Kaukonen’s 70th birthday. Both nights featured over three hours of music, two sets split by a 35-40 minute intermission, from some of the best players on the planet. Jack Casady was in top form on the bass, with Barry Mitterhoff on his remarkable array of eclectic stringed instruments and Skoota Warner on drums rounding out the current band. This was the first time I’d seen Skoota in the lineup; his playing is crisp; he seems to add a new layer of energy to the ensemble.

Each night featured a different array of guest artists from Jorma’s and Tuna’s past, present and future. Friday saw Larry Campbell on fiddle and guitar, Warren Haynes on guitar, Bruce Hornsby on dulcimer and keys, Byron House on standup bass, Bill Kirchen (from the legendary Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen) on guitar, all joining the band in various confirgurations. (Specifics are posted on Jorma’s blog, no need for me to repeat them.) Happy Traum, John Hammond and Chris Smither also played and performed some of their own songs.

Every song was a highlight. John Hammond shone with blazing performances of I Can Tell and You Know That’s Cold. Bill Kirchen’s rockabilly playing was a real treat. Jack’s and Byron House’s bass duets on Water Song and 99 Year Blues were mesmerising, full of rich, deep tones you’ll never hear anywhere else. It was truly a special stretch of music that will remain at the top of my jumble of Tuna memories.

Everyone stood out on the twelve-minute rendition of Funky #7, particularly Warren Haynes and Larry Campbell, who punctuated the long jam in the middle with a stunning duelling-guitars conversation that evolved into a sweet stretch of Allman-style harmonizing riffs.

Saturday’s guests were Tuna alumni Pete Sears on keys, Michael Falzarano on guitar and Bob Steeler on drums. Oteil Burbridge brought his bass wizardry to the mix, while Bob Weir peppered the evening with that old San Francisco vibe. Steve Earle added real fire with peformances of Nothing Brings You Down Like Your Home Town and Brand New Companion, and then some tasty guitar work on the last two songs of the night. I don’t think of Earle primarily as a guitarist, but I really enjoyed his approach to playing the electric.

The Burbridge-Casady interplay on Bowlegged Woman, Walking Blues and 99 Year Blues was astounding. The Steeler-Warner drumming duo cranked up the energy at the end of the first set and for the last seven songs in the second. The real showstopper, though, was Bob Weir singing When I Paint My Masterpiece, with Pete Sears on accordion adding just the right accents to bring out the full flavor of that historic song.

What a pair of shows it was. Every time I think of moving away from this area, I remember so many special nights like these and wonder how I could live without them. There’s still no place like New York City.

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Hot Tuna (acoustic), The Tabernacle, Mt. Tabor, NJ: Hear that train November 27, 2009

Posted by Anton A in American music, Hot Tuna.
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Last Friday night, Hot Tuna kicked off their fall tour of the northeast with a tasty three-hour acoustic show at the Mt. Tabor Tabernacle out here in the Jersey Highlands. This is a legendary annual gig in a unique concert space; I’ve been trying to get tickets for years & finally lucked out. The octaganal wooden Tabernacle is the centerpiece of a 19th-century Methodist retreat camp, up on a hilltop surrounded by attractive little cottages ornamented with Victorian gingerbread. They sell only 375 tickets for concerts, augmenting the pews inside with a few folding chairs.
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Jack, Jorma and Barry Mitterhof played two 90-minute sets of fine pickin’ and strummin’ to a rapt audience. The tones and harmonics they pulled from their instruments were mesmerising in that intimate space. They worked a lot of new material in with such Tuna staples as Living Just For You, Parchman Farm, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, 99 Year Blues, Come Back Baby and Good Shepherd.

A nice moment: they opened the show with Blue Railroad Train. In the middle of the song, a Jersey Transit train pulled into the station down in the valley below. You could hear its whistle blow through the walls of the Tabernacle as it approached the crossing. Perfect timing.

I’ll catch up with the electric version of the band next weekend at the Beacon in NYC. Nothing says “It’s the holidays!” like Hot Tuna.

Hot Tuna, Beacon Theater, NYC: Keep those lamps trimmed & burning November 26, 2005

Posted by Anton A in American music, Hot Tuna.
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Tuna made their annual Thanksgiving visit to NYC’s Beacon Theatre on Saturday night.  I’ve missed the last two, so was looking forward to this one with more than the usual degree of anticipation.  True to form, they smoked the place up, as did the audience. 

Those who’ve read some of my other reviews will know how fond I am of this New York institution.  Do I mean the Tuna Thanksgiving shows or the Beacon?  Both, of course.  We had seats in the third row of the lower balcony of this splendid beaux-arts musical palace, giving us a fine view of all the gilt statuary and colorful murals, as well as the stage.

If you’re a Tuna fan, you know what to expect: a heaping dose of American blues/folk music and Tuna originals, expertly played by a group of dedicated musicians.  There’s little pretense of putting on a rock show here, just some of the finest playing you’ll ever see.  Jack & Jorma were joined by the extraordinary Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin for the first set, and on a collection of odd-looking  stringed instruments during the electric set.  The hour-long acoustic set featured the three of them; Erik Diaz then made it four and kicked up the energy on drums for the 90-minute electric set.

Jack threw down the gauntlet right at the start by pumping the volume and unleashing a thunderous solo in the middle of That’ll Never Happen No More. I don’t think the rest of the band was expecting that!  After the song, Jorma, with a big grin, advised Jack, “Maybe next time you ought to warm up a little more before you try a solo like that.”

Here’s the setlist.  They played five songs I hadn’t heard before; not bad considering that they haven’t done a new studio CD in a couple of decades. 

Set 1 Acoustic:

That’ll Never Happen No More
Blue Railroad Train
Parchman Farm > Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning
I’ll Let You Know Before I Leave
Uncle Sam Blues
Prohibition Blues
I’ll Be All Right Someday (Rev. Gary Davis tune)
Hesitation Blues
Just Because (a polka!)

Set 2 Electric:

True Religion
Living Just For You
I Can’t Be Satisfied
I Wish You Would
Trial By Fire
Roads And Roads &
Talkin’ Bout You
Rock Me Baby
Corners Without Exits
Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man
Funky #7

The electric set reached an early crescendo with searing versions Can’t Be Satisfied and Wish You Would.  They settled back for some more leisurely musical journeys before scorching the place with Rock Me Baby – took me right back to the Bless Its  Pointed Little Head Airplane album – and then really bringing the funk with the last two numbers.

Unfortunately the Beacon’s house rules didn’t leave time for an encore; the band seemed ready to go another half-hour easily and the night felt unfinished, but they had to stop at 11:00 sharp.  At least they didn’t waste time running offstage and back.

Tuna are cutting a swath through the Northeast over the next week before heading back to the Midwest; I advise everyone to go see them and get your soul psychedelicized one more time.

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.