Over the past decade or so, Hot Tuna has passed into the realm of comfort food. I do not listen to the recordings as often as I used to, but Tuna at the Beacon may become an annual tradition for me. This was my 5th (or 6th?) time at the Beacon for Hot Tuna since the fall of 1999, and I have yet to be disappointed. This year’s show was important for a few reasons. First, it was my first Tuna show since the release of Steady as She Goes (2011), the band’s first studio album since Pair-a-Dice Found (1990). While I’ve heard Jorma perform some of the songs from this album in solo performances, I had yet to hear most of them performed with the full band. Furthermore, this show included a number of special guests, some of whom I’d heard play with Tuna before, others not. My last Tuna show was the 70th anniversary bash at the Beacon, detailed here, and, much as I love the Jorma solo shows I’ve seen in the meantime, it’s his band that means the most to me.
The show began about 10 minutes past 8:00, when Jack Casady walked out on stage alone. After thanking us for coming and saying a few respectful words about New York, especially in light of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, he began playing some bass guitar alone on stage. Two minutes into the solo, Jorma Kaukonen, Barry Mitterhoff, and Larry Campbell walked onstage and began picking out the familiar opening to “Hesitation Blues,” which elicited enormous cheers from us all, and off we went.
This edition of Hot Tuna included the core band—Jorma, Jack, Barry, and Skoota (my favorite of the many drummers that have passed through the band)—and this evening featured many special guests: G.E. Smith, Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Lincoln Schleiffer, Bob Margolin, Bill Kirchen, and the wonderfully named Cindy Cashdollar. The material from Steady as She Goes prominently featured Larry and Teresa, particular the latter’s harmony vocals. Larry Campbell played some killer violin, starting with the opening number, and he sat down to do some pedal steel on a couple of tunes. His guitar playing, meanwhile, is superb, and if you have not heard the recording of Tuna’s Beacon shows from 2010, which include his tasteful licks on “Genesis,” among other Tuna classics, you are missing out. But he and Teresa shone most brightly when, in the middle of the first set, they did an extended jam on the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree,” a great surprise. Bob Margolin was a guitarist in Muddy Waters’ touring band back in the 1970s, and he contributed some fine solos, particularly on “Rock Me Baby,” and a couple of his own songs, most prominently “She and the Devil,” in which Bob gets down on his knees to pray: “Lord, give me strength / don’t let me kill this woman,” later followed by an assurance: “someday she'll surely go to hell.” Bill led the band on Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changing,” another nice surprise, and Cindy played some mean lap steel on that one and on a couple of others. But the greatest contributions, I thought, came from “George,” as Jorma called him (and that *is* G.E.’s name, after all). His loud, distorted chords on “I See The Light” and “Hit Single #1” made those two the real highlights of the first set, and his solos on “Rock Me Baby” and “Bowlegged Woman” stole the show. And in the second set, he brought Richard Shindell’s “Arrowhead” to life. I hope he gets to play with these guys more often.
Since I’m a Hot Tuna fanboy, it’s hard to write about the band without simply raving. These guys are instrumentalists without peer, and it’s such a treat to hear Jorma, in particular, play electric guitar. His sound is very much his own, and it hasn’t changed too much in the past 45 years (at least not to my ears). The guitar solos (and let us never forget, Jack Casady’s bass solos) were consistently exciting, but it was the ensemble playing that I liked most. “I See the Light” is a thing of beauty, and G. E.’s contributions rocked the song like I haven’t heard before, and his contributions were every bit as great to “Hit Single #1,” which is also Barry Mitterhoff’s moment to shine. Other than those two, and the electrified version of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” toward the end of the second set, my favorite moment was when Larry played pedal steel and Teresa sang harmonies on “Bar Room Crystal Ball.” If my memory serves me correctly, the last time I heard them play this song was my first Tuna show back in the fall of 1999 (at the Beacon), and it’s one of my favorite, most lyrical moments from the Yellow Fever (1975) album. I see here the set list from that show; time flies!
Hot Tuna doesn’t tour the electric band as often as they used to, so get it while you can is my advice.