Sunday, September 16, 2012

Jorma Kaukonen w/ Loudon Wainwright III @ The Colonial Theater, Phoenixville PA, September 14th, 2012

Not long after entering the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, I entered the men’s room, just in time to hear a couple of guys, at least two decades my senior, talking about their excitement about seeing Jorma Kaukonen. I was a bit irritated, however, to hear one of them announce, apropos of his excitement, how great Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969) is, and the other swear that that album, Jefferson Airplane’s first and best live album, goes together with their third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967). I was irritated not because I disagree about the greatness of either (although listening back to Baxter’s now, it’s a bit uneven, though its great moments are some of the Airplane’s greatest), but because you’d think Jorma hadn’t done anything since the ‘60s were over. But he had just gotten started. In any case, Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna shows seem to attract folks who, if their offhand comments and in-concert whooping are any indication, checked out after the Airplane landed, or perhaps after Hot Tuna cooled off at the end of the 1970s, and were out to recapture something. This is not the first time I’ve noticed this—and as someone who was born in the later 1970s himself, I’m at a generational disadvantage in assessing an audience that in some broad sense I’m not a part of—but it’s the first time I found myself a little annoyed. Jorma Kaukonen plays a lot of traditional material—folk songs, let’s say—but he’s not a nostalgia act. Over the past decade or so, he’s been recording some excellent albums, including the first new Hot Tuna studio album in over 20 years, and he doesn’t shy away from performing those songs in concert.

The opening act for the evening was Loudon Wainwright III, who takes generational solidarity more seriously than most touring singers his age simply by writing the personal songs that he’s always written and not pretending that he is anything other than he is. At the moment, what that means is that he knows that most of his life is over, and death is very much on his mind. Several of the songs from his set came from his most recent album, Older than My Old Man Now (2012), which contains entirely songs about “death and decay,” as he told us. He preceded two of the songs he played from that album—the title track, along with “Something’s Out to Get Me”—with recitations of Life Magazine columns that his father had written, one about his own father (Loudon Wainwright I, that is) and another about his own impending demise. The generational disjuncture made itself felt about halfway through the set, when he made a show out of peering into the audience and claiming to notice that he could see his demographic out in the crowd. That comment led into “My Meds” from the new album, a recitation of all the substances he was on (or would be on by the end of the night, he assured us). “Heaven” and “The Picture” both featured death in their own way, one moving me to laugh out loud, the other making me tear up. “Over the Hill” he co-wrote with his late wife Kate McGarrigle, before either had turned 30. When they weren’t playing music together or raising their son, he said, “we were trying to kill each other.” “The Morgue” was the highlight of the night, as it combined “death and decay” with his favorite theme from earlier in his career, “shitty love.” And there was also time for “Ode to Pittsburg,” which he wrote in 1969 and was trying to prepare for his show in that city the next night, where he went to college. He forgot about half the words, prompting him to announce, as he struck the final chord, that he was going to have to go home and google the song so that he could memorize the words in time for the show.

While Loudon Wainwright’s performances tend to be emotional roller coasters, Jorma Kaukonen’s performances (at least his solo acoustic ones; Hot Tuna is another matter) are, by contrast, steadier enterprises. This is a function of the kinds of material they perform, their performing styles, and their own particular quirks and talents. Jorma is a blues singer, plain and (not so) simple. His set with Barry Mitterhoff, as usual, combined a handful of original songs with traditional blues songs, some of which have been in Jorma’s repertoire since the 1960s, like “Good Shepherd” and “Come Back Baby” which, probably not by coincidence, are also the two songs that featured the longest jams of the night. “Hesitation Blues” and “How Long Blues” were recorded for the first Hot Tuna album and elicited some of the loudest applause of the evening. As usual there were plenty of Reverend Gary Davis songs, this time including “Children of Zion” and “Let Us Get Together Right down Here.”

Jorma was a gracious host. While Barry did most of the talking, introducing songs and doing the usual thank yous, Jorma’s stage presence was wry and warm. He pointed out that the ukulele that Barry Mitterhoff took up for “The Terrible Operation” dated back to the 1920s. He shrugged off a particularly loud request for “Killing Time in the Crystal City” by saying “now there’s a cheerful song.” He dedicated “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” to his old friend and bandmate Jack Casady, whose wife passed away not long ago. He referred to Miller Highlife as “the champagne of bottled beer.” And, as usual, he let Barry advertise their merchandise: CDs, t-shirts, and an assortment of teas which, as Jorma said, was for our benefit, not theirs. He bade us all stay healthy and take good care of ourselves so that we could all make it to NYC for the Beacon Theater shows after Thanksgiving. The musical high points were when Jorma got flashy. His solo on “Barbeque King” was especially fine, and the uptempo segment of “Hesitation Blues” is always marvelous to behold. And the encore of “Embryonic Journey” was a great moment. It was the Jefferson Airplane song that the crowd had been waiting for. And I’m glad they, I mean we, got it

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