Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hot Tuna @ The Beacon Theater, New York City, December 3rd, 2010

The key word for last night's Hot Tuna show at the Beacon--the first of two sold-out gigs there--seemed to be "yikes." At least, that was the first word from Jorma Kaukonen's lips after the band took the stage, and he said it at least two more times that I can recall. What could he have been referring to? I can think of a few possibilities: the fact that he was celebrating his 70th birthday with these NYC concerts, the presence of a number of old friends at the show, the extraordinary quality of musicianship on the stage, and/or the huge, adoring crowd that was there to celebrate with him. Most likely, it's all of the above. But I'm just guessing.

I grew up with Hot Tuna, along with the first of Jorma's great bands, the Jefferson Airplane. They were the first rock groups that really felt "mine" when I was a teenager. I felt at the time like I was in the know about something really important, particularly since this was music that was recorded almost entirely before I was born. So whenever I see Tuna, it's always something special for me. Sentiment aside, however, this is one of the truly great rock and blues bands I have ever heard or seen. The material, whether blues numbers transformed into rock and roll or Jorma Kaukonen originals, is high quality, and Jorma and bassist Jack Casady are players without peer. At the moment, those two are playing with a fabulous drummer, Skoota Warner, and the multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff who, at the last few Tuna shows I've seen, came damn near to stealing the show. And Tuna at the Beacon--where I have now seen them 5 times--is something truly special. The greater NYC area has a whole bunch of Hot Tuna fans, and they pack the Beacon whenever the band comes to town. A number of years ago, Jorma referred to the Beacon as one of the "crown jewels" of gigs and, whenever I see them there, I think I know why.

After that first "yikes," Hot Tuna launched "I See the Light" out into the Beacon as their first offering. This happens to be one of my favorite songs in the Tuna catalog, particularly because of the ensemble playing and the way it builds and builds toward its climax. After that came "Corners Without Exits," a song about overcoming the internal hurdles that otherwise stop you from striding unafraid into the future, that featured some particularly excellent singing. Both of those were originally released on The Phosphorescent Rat (1973). After that, the volume and distortion levels went up a notch with two songs originally released on Hoppkorv (1976), "Talkin' Bout You" and "Can't Get Satisfied." The latter was played maybe a touch slower than I'm used to hearing it, Jorma soloing with particular intensity and Skoota funking it up beautifully.

The first of the special guests then took the stage, Happy Traum, with acoustic guitar in hand. They played "Sportin' Life Blues," a song that I actually associate with Chris Smither (who recorded it for his Small Revelations album). Happy sang it, and he sang it well. "Ode to Billy Dean" from Burgers (1972) and another Phosphorescent Rat song, "Living Just for You" came next, the former slow and bluesy and ominous, the latter fast and upbeat.

The second special guest was the blues singer John Hammond. I didn't know the songs they played, but John was in fine vocal form. In my own humble opinion, his voice has improved with age. It doesn't always work that way, but with him it has. And his cherry-red guitar is gorgeous.

Bill Kirchen from Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen and the maestro guitarist and fiddler Larry Campell took the stage next to ponder the crucial question: "Are you talkin' 'bout love, or are you talkin' 'bout chicken?" After that, the great Warren Haynes, from the Allman Brothers Band and from Gov't Mule, joined the assembled cast for a long, searing jam on "Come Back Baby," featuring great solos from every one of the guitarists, to end the first set. That was also the longest jam of the first set, a great way to leave an adoring audience craving a short intermission.

The second set featured some particularly inspired collaborations. It began with "Water Song" and "99 Year Blues," both augmented by bassist Byron House. Of all the collaborations of the night, this one may have been the most ingenious, in terms of matching guest with material. I would never have guessed it, but the second bass took "Water Song" to another level and added a touch of menace to "99 Year Blues." Larry Campbell then joined the boys on "Genesis," playing some Mark Knopfler-esque guitar, which beautifully suited the song (one of my favorite Jorma originals). Warren Haynes came back on stage for "Bowlegged Woman, Knock-kneed Man," one of my favorites of the older, intense electric jams.

The next guest, Bruce Hornsby, treated us to something different. I associate Bruce Hornsby with the piano (and there was a lovely one on stage), but he came onstage with a dulcimer. With Larry Campbell on violin and Jorma on acoustic guitar, Bruce led the band in a performance of "Children of Zion." It was quirky and unusual in this context, but I certainly enjoyed it. After that one, he moved to the piano to join the band on a song that has been in the Tuna repertoire from the beginning, "Know You Rider," with Skoota revving the tempo for the instrumental jam in the middle and everyone playing great solos. This was another example of a good match between guest musician and material; the piano playing was really kicking in that song. After that one, the guests left stage and the core four-piece band played "If This Is Love I Want My Money Back," which they are recording for the new Hot Tuna album. I remembered this one from their Beacon show last year, which I described here, and was happy to hear it again.

One of my other songwriting and guitar-playing heroes came onstage next. It was Chris Smither and, as is his wont, he sat and stomped as he played and picked. The song was "Step It Up and Go," an old Blind Boy Fuller song that Chris and Jorma recorded a few years ago.

The rest of the second set consisted of two long, electric jams, one slow and smoldering, "Rock Me Baby," and the other fast and funky and crazy, "Funky #7." The first was a platform for the guitarists to take off. The second included Bruce Hornsby on piano and, with all the jamming, went on for well over 10 minutes. For the encore, the core band performed "Hit Single #1," with Barry Mitterhoff soloing over Jorma's performance of the climactic instrumental bridge.

This was the longest Hot Tuna show I've ever attended. The band went on about 5 minutes after 8:00 and did not leave for good until 11:45 or so. The variation between acoustic blues, country-rock, and searing electric jams mirrored the various musical styles that Jorma Kaukonen has tapped into throughout his musical career. And Jorma was clearly enjoying himself. "I could get used to this," he enthused at one point, watching his guests get set up for a particular song. His introductions were a combination of affection for his friends and excitement with the event: "yeah, that's right--Bruce Hornsby!" He mentioned that Happy Traum was the one buddy of his who was actually a few older than he was, "and I want to be just like him when I grow up!" When introducing Bill Kirchen, he mentioned having once played in a band called Jefferson Airplane, eliciting big applause. He spoke warmly about having met John Hammond at Antioch College 50 years ago. And I don't think I have ever heard him play better. With all that guitar-playing talent on stage pushing him a bit, his solos and his singing were some of the strongest I can recall hearing from him.

After the show, I met up with Ellen and Red House Records' Eric Peltoniemi to chat and meet with the band. Backstage, people were floating around the rather cramped hallways, where Jorma was greeting folks. Ellen introduced me to him, we shook hands, and I wished him a happy birthday. I suppose it's a sign of emotional growth that I don't experience an emotional freakout when I meet one of my musical heroes. Ellen chatted with Jorma and his wife Vanessa for a few minutes, before we made our wade through the little backstage crowd (which included Happy and Bruce...and I think I spied Michael Falzarano back there too) and out into the night.

One final comment....Hot Tuna is recording a new album for Red House Records. From what Ellen tells me, and from what little I overheard Ellen and Eric and Jorma discuss, the new album is going to be a beauty. Beyond that, I happen to know a little secret, which I am happy to share with all you readers: there is no such thing as a bad Hot Tuna album. They don't exist and I can't imagine that they ever will. So be on the lookout for the new offering this spring and, in the meantime, watch out for the band playing at a venue near you.


Ellen Stanley said...

Such a wild show and lots of fun to hang out with my fellow Sound of Blackbirds blogger! I totally agree about John Hammond's voice...sounded top-notch!

doug mlyn said...

Great Review! Summed it up to a tee why I love Hot Tuna so much. I was at both shows, and they were 2 shows for the ages! Just have one comment, you gave away your age by telling us this is the longest Hot Tuna show you've ever been to.

Matt Winters said...

Wow! What an insane line-up of guest stars for that show -- sounds like a show for the ages.

Nick Toloudis said...

@ doug mlyn: Yes, I'm a youngster Hot Tuna fan, it's true. :-)