Hot Tuna released its first recording after a long hiatus in 2011.
It was 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, when Hot Tuna took the stage to a sold-out audience at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. Eight of us had just finished a fabulous dinner at One Twenty Six restaurant, and as we walked down the block to the venue, the cool evening air became a harbinger of the sublime music to come.
Hot Tuna, a spin-off group from Jefferson Airplane, is known for both electric and acoustic versions of original and traditional blues. On this night, we would hear the acoustic trio consisting of Jorma Kaukonen (acoustic guitar and vocals), Jack Casady (electric bass), and Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin and ukulele), who has been performing with HT since 2002. We had bought tickets based on hearing Casady and Kaukonen 15 years ago at Doc Watson’s MerleFest. At that time, we didn’t know what to expect. This time, we knew better but still couldn’t anticipate the full impact of the wonderful event ahead.
Casady and Kaukonen have been playing music together since the late 1950s. Kaukonen is known for his finger-style acoustic guitar, while Casady is an accomplished innovator of bass guitar construction and technology. Hot Tuna came about in early 1969 during a hiatus from Jefferson Airplane, when Grace Slick was recovering from vocal cord surgery. Members of the Airplane performed as Hot Tuna at local San Francisco clubs, playing Airplane songs and covers from American blues masters such as Rev. Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, and Blind Blake. By the fall of 1969, Hot Tuna became the opening band for Jefferson Airplane!
Over the years, the supporting cast has changed except for Jack and Jorma. After a long recording gap, Hot Tuna released an electric CD in 2011 entitled Steady As She Goes, their first studio album in 20 years.
In Iowa City, the band opened with “Hesitation Blues,” a song generally credited to Rev. Gary Davis, the legendary blind songwriter of blues and gospel born in 1896. This song demonstrates the impact of traditional blues on contemporary music. After intermission, the band played “Good Shepherd,” an Airplane cover song spun in new directions with Jorma’s smooth vocals and finger-style guitar, Jack’s masterful bass lines, and Barry’s confident mandolin that embraced his bluegrass and traditional blues roots.
Throughout the evening, as the band brought a song toward conclusion, they would often take a turn and twirl the audience around the block one more time with a minute of instrumental tapestry, invoking another layer of serene satisfaction. The audience howled in delight as the concert approached a near-religious experience.
In the middle of one song, during a purely instrumental section, a couple of empty beer bottles fell over and rolled downhill under the seats towards the stage. Jorma seemed especially amused by this and broke into a big smile. It must have reminded him of the original 1970 live Tuna album in which one can hear beer bottles breaking in the background during “Uncle Sam Blues.” In the nostalgia of the moment, perhaps someone intentially tipped the bottles over to honor Hot Tuna’s legacy.
Where should one begin to explore the music of Hot Tuna? Hot Tuna Classic Acoustic (1996) is an excellent collection that includes “Hesitation Blues” and a live version of another Rev. Gary Davis tune, the 10-minute “Death Have No Mercy,” with Papa John Creach joining the boys with his electric fiddle. You’ll find some of the best quality live performances on 2001-01-08 The Bottom Line, New York, NY, including one of my favorites, “I Know You Rider.” From Burgers (1972), check out “Water Song.” Finally, from Steady As She Goes (2011), the track “Goodbye to the Blues” shows more of the rocking side of Hot Tuna.
In an interview by Greg Olwell, published on www.premierguitar.com, Jorma says, “All of us have musical heroes and iconic styles we look to. You need to find a foundation of something you love to stimulate the creative juices and bring the music forward without being an archivist. You need to take it to another place.”
Thanks, guys, for taking us to the exquisite places where Hot Tuna simmers.
Hear Fringe Toast every Wednesday, 8-10 p.m., CST, on KRUU FM 100.1 in Fairfield, Iowa.
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