Friday, July 23, 2010

Hot Tuna w/ Steve Earle @ The Shubert Theater, New Haven CT, July 23rd, 2010

I took the hour-long drive to New Haven last night to check out electric Hot Tuna. After the powerful experience I had at the sold-out Beacon Theater show last December, I was thirsty for more. At that show, I was sitting a few rows back in the balcony, and the sound was so loud and intense that, last night, by the time I walked into the theater, I was regretting not bringing earplugs. After all, for the New Haven show, I was sitting in the fifth row of the orchestra, dead center. Was I about to suffer ear damage?

The opening act was Steve Earle. I haven’t seen this guy in over a decade. I think the last time I saw him was in Newport, back in 1999. He was playing with a bluegrass band then. It wasn’t Del McCoury, who he recorded the excellent The Mountain (1999) with…..Ok, I just looked it up: he was there with Tim O’Brian and the Bluegrass Dukes. Here’s a pic from my archives:

Anyway, there was no band this time. Just him, his harmonicas, and a few stringed instruments: guitars, mandolins, and a bouzouki—which, he joked later in his set, you can’t call a bouzouki at the airport if you want to stay out of trouble. I don’t know the Steve Earle cannon particularly well, so I was happy that I recognized about half the songs. The high point for me actually came early, as he opened with “Christmas in Washington.” I’m so used to hearing Joan Baez’s version of this song that it took my ears a minute to adjust to Earle’s voice but, when they did, I found myself singing along. Toward the end, he encouraged us all to sing, which a few of us did. After that came “The Devil’s Right Hand,” eliciting big cheers. An excellent one-two punch to begin.

Earle played for about 75 minutes, a long opening set. He sounded great, slurring and moaning and playing some good guitar. He was in a conversational mood, too. He took the time to talk about the deli down the street where he lived in Brooklyn, and the Korean gentleman, Mr. Kim, who took the time to learn fluent Spanish to go along with his Korean and English, in order to get by in the city. A fine introduction to “City of Immigrants,” performed on the aforementioned bouzouki. He talked about Townes van Zandt, whose songs he played exclusively on his latest album, Townes (2009). He compared the task of playing “Pancho and Lefty” to attacking the biggest, toughest guy in your cell block in order to get respect of your fellow prisoners (or something like that). He talked about asking Townes where he learned a different song (that I didn’t know) that led him to ask relatives and friends of relatives, and on down the line to find its origins. He talked about Afghanistan, before giving us “Rich Man’s War.” He talked about the Lewis and Clark expedition before announcing that it had nothing to do with the next song, “You Know the Rest,” other than that they both exposed the b.s. of the doctrine of manifest destiny. He took up the mandolin to play “Dixieland” from The Mountain, which I was happy about. This was Earle the folkie, not Earle the rocker, and he’s good, real good, in this mode. I would go see him again if the opportunity came up. This breaks the streak of Tuna openers whose solo acoustic performances have gotten lost in bigger venues (I’m thinking of Loudon Wainwright back in December and, back in 2002, Chris Smither at the NYC Thanksgiving show).

On to the opening act…Jorma Kaukonen and The Barry Mitterhoffs. Seriously, folks, Jorma seems to really like this guy’s playing. I do too. He gets some very juicy solos, and he plays a variety of electric guitars and mandolins. Not to take anything away from G.E. Smith or Jorma himself, but Barry has the least stage presence of any of the Tuna gang while playing some of the best guitar. Jorma and Jack have staked their claim to history, and now Barry and G.E. have clearly given them new life. And Skoota Warner is my favorite Tuna drummer, with all due respect to Harvey Sorgen and Eric Diaz.

Contrary to my fears, the band did not, to paraphrase Spinal Tap’s “Heavy Duty,” make my eardrums bleed. I guess because the Shubert Performing Arts Center is so much smaller than the Beacon, and the show was noticeably not sold out, the band didn’t feel the need to pump the amps up to 11 (to paraphrase Tap once again). Here’s the setlist with my commentary:

1. Serpent of Dreams—-A most unexpected opener, but a great one. Jorma’s guitar started it off, with Barry on electric guitar too, and pretty soon, the intertwining guitars of Jorma, Barry, and G.E. were filling the theater with the spooky, psychedelic sounds of my favorite song from America’s Choice (1975). When Skoota and Jack burst in, the crowd erupted with applause.

2. I Know You Rider—-The instrumental portion of this one went on and on, with Skoota upping the tempo, and each of the stringmen given room to solo. Guess whose solo knocked my socks off? Barry’s, that’s whose. He was on the mandolin for this one, if I recall correctly.

3. I Wish You Would—-In my mind’s ear and eye, I’ll never forget this one as the opener to the 2009 NYC show that wowed me back in December. It didn’t rip my ears off this time, and thank goodness for that, but it was still the first really raucous moment of the night.

4. Ode To Billy Dean—-As near as I can remember, I haven’t heard this one live since the very first time I saw them, back in 1999. This was Jorma’s moment to shine, and his singing and solos were prime.

5. Long Gone Blues—-a G.E. Smith song with a very simple riff and some great singing from the man. During this one, I decided that I loved what G.E. Smith brings to the group, and I hope he stays.

6. Living Just For You—-one of Tuna’s most upbeat numbers, and one that brings back great memories from high school, listening to The Phosphorescent Rat (1973) on my headset, delighting in this new band I’d discovered, that no one else knew about. Also with a great Barry solo.

7. Hesitation Blues—-a favorite of the Tuna audience, Tuna themselves, and me. After each of the first two verses, there were solos from Barry and G.E. And after the next one, with Jack and Skoota revving the tempo, Jorma took off too. It’s always a thrill to hear this one.

8. Bowlegged Woman, Knock-kneed Man—-The rest of the band stood back at first, letting Jack repeat the funky bass part a number of times over, before joining in. Jorma stood watching him for a few seconds, hands in his pockets. This one also featured G.E.’s best moment as a supporting player, hammering out a great rhythm part, playing big fat chords against Jack’s bass.

9. Talkin’ Bout You—-…thereby completing a two-fer from Hoppkorv (1976). Less funk than the previous song, and more rock. This is a Chuck Berry song which, in its original recording, manages to be both rocking and funky. But then, that’s Chuck Berry for you. Another great one to hear live.

10. Arrowhead—-What a treat to hear Hot Tuna play this one. Yes, this is the Richard Shindell song, here performed by G.E., with an added verse: “Mama, there’s a rope around my neck / They say this is what deserters get / There’s a white horse resting between my knees / A crack of the whip, then I’ll be free / Mama, there’s a rope around my neck.” I’ve heard a rumor that Tuna is recording a new album. I would LOVE to hear them record this song.

11. Funky #7-—I think of this as having become the standard set-closer for electric Hot Tuna. And why not? It’s funky as hell, it features one of Jack’s best post-Jefferson Airplane’s bass licks, the lyrics are cool, it moves from funky rock to hard-driving rock, and it gives everyone, including Skoota, a chance to solo. More kickass playing from all the guitarists, with Barry in particular soaring away. The high point of the jam came when Jack and Skoota played a slow, quiet duet for about a minute, before the other guys joined in, Jack signaling for them to do so by playing the key lick at a high volume. Thus did America's Choice songs begin and end the show.

Prior to the finale, Jack did the stage introductions, with Jorma introducing Jack as “Jack Twinkle-toes Cassady.” No effort to hawk merchandise, and very little banter during the entire show, although, a few songs in, Jorma walked up to the mike and said, “Hot Tuna….Fuck yeah,” and gave the “devil’s horns” sign. Hilarious moment. Everyone, on and off the stage, laughed. Throughout the set, Jorma walked among his bandmates in between songs, having little conversations with each of them, just as I saw him do back at the Beacon. There were definitely a couple of moments where the band members looked a bit distracted and called crew members onto the stage to fix little things having to do with the mikes and the wires....All that aside, the band sounded great. I couldn't help but grin at Barry Mitterhoff, dressed in beige shirt and slacks, with his big glasses, looking very focused as he tore through incredible solo after incredible solo. Occasionally, he'd bop or rock back and forth as he got into things, and he and G.E. would exchange little smiles from time to time. He may not look 100% comfortable rocking out, but he sure as hell sounds comfortable! I read an interview with him in which he talked about how he's never soloed as much in a band-type situation as he has with Tuna. To repeat: he sounds fabulous.

No encore, in spite of some loud demands for one, and some whooping and hollering that extended beyond the lights having gone up. I wondered if this was, like the Beacon, a union hall. I checked Jorma’s website to see if he had anything to say about that…answer: yup.

This was my 8th Hot Tuna concert; four acoustic shows and, as of last night, four electric ones. I’ll be returning for more, of both varieties, and, in the meantime, I hope the rumor of a new album is more than just a rumor.


Matt Winters said...

Love the Mitterrhoff love. Love the added lyrics to "Arrowhead."

Matt Winters said...

Oh! Also loved the archival Steve Earle photo!

T-Bone said...

Great review! I'd like to see GE stick with them too, but he'll be touring this fall & winter with Roger Waters on his "The Wall Tour."

Allan Roth said...

Shindell had some thoughts on those extra lyrics when I saw him at Joe's Pub last year.

Matt Winters said...

What was Shindell's take?

Nick Toloudis said...

Whoa--Shindell talked about the extra lyrics onstage? I'd like to know what he said!