Hot Tuna: Pabst Theater, 3/11/12

Wed Mar 14 2012

As rock stars other than Paul McCartney age into their sixties, they tend to tone things down, stop releasing albums, mellow out and, if they’re still into playing live, strip down the performance to basically just sitting on a stool playing an acoustic guitar. This approach tends to work well if you’re, say, Ray Davies or Nick Lowe, and you have all these perfect pop songs that don’t need any additives to be amazing. It’s not so easy when you’re Hot Tuna. These guys are better known for their cover tunes, long jams and other bands than their songwriting. In case the names of founding members Jorma Kaukonen (guitar/vocals) and Jack Casady (bass) don’t ring a bell: they were also founding members of Jefferson Airplane. Yeah, they were at Woodstock? Rrrrright, let’s see…Remember the scene in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas when Benicio del Toro is in the bathtub begging Johnny Depp to throw the tape recorder in when “White Rabbit” peaks? No? Sigh Well, there’s always Wikipedia. Anyway, Hot Tuna was a pretty big deal in the 1970s, at first purely as a mostly-acoustic Airplane side project, but eventually as a monster jam band in its own right (I don’t think anyone used the term “jam band” in those days, but what else do you call a rock combo specializing in free-form improvisation and sets that could last up to six hours?). In 1977, the group disbanded, but since about 1986 it has been mostly back in action, with its two founders being the only constant members. For the current tour, mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff is the only addition, to the chagrin of fans of the electric incarnation of the band. Yep, it was three white-haired guys sitting on chairs playing stringed instruments—Casady’s bass was electric, for the record—but as it turns out, even without any pop hits, that was all they needed.

Okay, technically, Hot Tuna does have a relatively new album out: last year’s Steady As She Goes, the band’s first studio record in 20 years. And predictably, the handful tracks from it provided some of the least engaging stretches of the two hour-plus sets (although “Things That Might Have Been” was touching), particularly towards the middle of the second set as the band weathered an obnoxiously loud cell phone and the requisite obnoxiously loud drunks in the back rows. There, that’s gotten the negative stuff out of the way; in most respects, this was an impressive and immensely enjoyable show, because Kaukonen and Casady are downright fantastic musicians with a chemistry and flow so intuitive they might be telepathic.

If these two cats weren’t so amazing, the performance might easily have been derailed by Mitterhoff, a dude with absolutely no sense of rhythm. He had some terrific moments when the tempo was already fast, but otherwise he tended to want to speed up any time he took a solo, as the two main men patiently compensated over and over. After a short while it was easy to virtually ignore Barry and just concentrate on the two masters. Listening to Jorma play guitar is a refreshing reminder of how soulless and stylistically bankrupt an exercise it is when most rock guitarists pick up an acoustic and attempt to play it. He’s so comfortable and fluent on the instrument that oftentimes his fingers dance around the strings and suggest melodies and chord progressions without actually playing them. He’s basically the Leo Kottke of the blues. Casady is not far behind; his iconic thudding style somehow works just as well in the acoustic setting as it does in “White Rabbit”, and when the two of them would join up for brief interludes of joint improv it was magical.

There was a rare musical presence in the Pabst Theater Sunday night: two musicians who’ve been playing improvisational music together for over four decades. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I can say I’ve ever seen such a long-standing, ingrained, undeniable musical chemistry before (no, not even with The Dead). Despite the no-frills blues and folk tunes and even a potentially distracting sideman, Jorma and Jack emanated an effortless but staggering synergy and virtuosity that carried through even the occasional dull tune. Now, if only they’ll come back some time with an electric set…

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