Friday, December 21, 2012

Hot Tuna @ The Beacon Theater, New York City, December 1st, 2012

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.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rodriguez @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia PA, October 28th, 2012

After a hectic travel day from Portland, ME to Philadelphia PA that featured a delayed flight and plenty of worry about whether hurricane Sandy would strand me up north, I made it down to World Café Life with Amanda to see Rodriguez. I had imagined that we were like most of the folks at the venue in that we first became aware of the great man through the recent movie, Searching for Sugarman. In fact, given how knowledgeable many audience members seemed to be about his music, I sense that Amanda and I were behind the times. Given that Sixto Rodriguez has been touring on and off since 1998, when he made his first visit to South Africa, this is really not too surprising.

Rodriguez’s performance was relaxed and quietly confident. He opened the show with “(You Give Me) Fever,” performed with some nifty strumming on his nylon-string guitar. Much of the rest of his set consisted of switching between his own songs and covers of traditional rock songs (“Blue Suede Shows”) and ballads (“It’s Just One of Those Things” and “I’ve Only Got Eyes for You”). He performed these covers with a lot of enthusiasm and remarked that these songs meant a lot to him. His own songs—“Crucify Your Mind,” “Establishment Blues,” “Sugarman,” “I Wonder,” “Inner City Blues,” and others that I could not identify but the audience seemed to know—felt different, as stripped away from the elaborate arrangements on Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). The ethereal imagery and turns-of-phrase of his own songs contrasted strikingly with the more plain-spoken oldies that he enjoyed so much.

The overall feel that Rodriguez exuded in his performance was of a man who was simply happy to be there. Pretensions were limited, and so was stagecraft. He stood and smiled at us. He retuned the guitar after almost every song, turning down the volume to pick and strum the next song just for himself, making sure he knew what he was doing before turning the volume back up to play for the rest of us. He told corny jokes and stories—about Mickey and Minnie Mouse going to marriage counseling, about how to keep successful relationships together, about the unfortunate city of Detroit, about his own luck at getting to play music for a living at his late age—that his audience, me included, ate up and applauded. He mentioned his performance on David Letterman, pointing out that the full arrangement of “Crucify Your Mind” would have sounded even better if he had not been playing at all. The self-deprecation might have sounded self-serving from another performer, but knowing what we all know about the decades he spent away from professional music, it was a poignant reminder of how challenging his life has been. I sense that that is what a lot of his current audience actually hears. Rodriguez is a survivor, a soulful, big-hearted professional who for too long was denied the vessel best suited for his self-expression and managed against the odds to resume his calling. His songs are good, but they pale in comparison to the example set by his life.