Review - Hot Tuna
Hot Shit: Hot Tuna-The Egg, Albany, NY, Dec. 3, 2006
No, you can’t call yourselves “Hot Shit,” the humorless suits at RCA Records told Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady in 1970 when they negotiated with the label to record their spinoff project, a country-blues acoustic duo featuring Kaukonen’s fancy fingerstyle guitar picking over Casady’s acid-rock electric bass. Their working moniker, Jorma and Jack, wouldn’t do for an album, and with the execs nixing the scatological sobriquet, they settled on “Hot Tuna,” explained variously as slang for either a fresh heroin high (the opposite of cold turkey), or pussy.
Fortunately, the Neanderthal band names were not predictive of their
music—Jorma and Jack’s first LP, recorded live that spring with
harmonica player Will Scarlett sitting in, is a folkie’s delight. When
the Airplane disbanded in 1972, though, Hot Tuna went electric and has
largely re-mained so since then. For their show at a roughly
three-quarters-full Egg Sunday night, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
inductees Kaukonen and Casady teamed up with mandolinist Barry
Mitterhoff and drummer Eric Diaz for two hourlong eclectic sets of
acoustic blues, rock, classic country, and swing.
Fellow Metroland music scribe David Greenberger, whom I bumped into during the intermission, observed that Kaukonen and Casady have played together for so long (since 1960, to be exact) that they sounded like one instrument when playing as a duo, and that some of that cohesion was lost with the addition of the other players.
True, but something’s been gained as well. Diaz’s tasteful drumming allowed Kaukonen to shoulder an electric guitar and with it ratchet up the band’s intensity to recall at times the raw, primal energy of the Airplane. Barry Mitterhoff, a top bluegrass picker, also earned his keep by skillfully adapting the mandolin to other styles—he could even rock out with his electric axes. The most obvious downsides of Hot Tuna’s expansion to a four-piece band, though, was that during his electric-guitar tunes, Kaukonen’s singing (which has never been strong) often got buried in the mix, and his lead- guitar work occasionally lapsed into clichéd riffs.
The first set showcased more of the rootsy, acoustic side of Hot Tuna’s music, and the second tilted toward the electric. The rolling, sedate opener, “Sea Child,” found Mitterhoff playing electric mandolin like a lead guitar as Kaukonen fingerpicked an accompaniment. When the band broke into double time during the Sippy Wallace blues classic “I Know You Rider,” Mitterhoff changed gears to flash his bluegrass chops on his rich-toned 1942 Gibson F5 acoustic mandolin. Jack Casady, who played with taste and precision all night, then contributed the first of several fine bass solos. Later, Kaukonen’s rendition of his Airplane-era fingerstyle guitar showpiece, “Embryonic Journey,” was as flawless as the original.
They began the second set with Bukka White’s one-chord blues tune, “Parchman Farm,” about the notorious Mississippi prison where black inmates were sometimes killed for sport, and followed it with a hard-driving minor-key blues, “Ode to Billie Dean.” But then the band reverted to music with no harmonic movement at all, two such tunes in a row, in fact: “I Wish You Would,” and “99 Year Blues.” Toward the end of the second of these I began to wonder if perhaps chords changed only when they really wanted to change, but the next song, the intriguing “Corners Without Exits,” dispelled such speculation when the harmony started traveling again through sonorities both strange and familiar.
They closed with a high-intensity electric tune, “#1 Hit Record,” and encored with a rippling instrumental, “Water Song.” All in all, Hot Tuna showed why their fans have stuck with them all these years.
Index of Metroland
Articles by Glenn Weiser ©2006 by Glenn
Weiser. All rights reserved.
©2006 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.
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