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Published: 2007/10/28
by Randy Ray

Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitterhoff, Rhythm Room, Phoenix, AZ 9/30

It seemed more like a huge family gathering rather than a concert but we got a little bit of both with Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitterhoff. From the opening “That’ll Never Happen No More” with Kaukonen seated and playing an acoustic Gibson while Mitterhoff played mandolin and quipping after the song to his partner, “Fancy solo there for the first song,” everyone was relaxed and in the collective warm palms of musical greats. Certainly, the sold out crowd recognized this and even offered their own vocal presence into the proceedings as the give-and-take between performers and those sitting and standing at the Rhythm Room rested on the corner of Friendly and Obtrusive.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t funny to hear people shout out individual old Hot Tuna or Airplane or Jorma & Jack or Lynyrd Skynyrd (take a guess) and solo Jorma chestnuts. Quite the contrary, the duo made the best of their predicament, even prompting a witty response from Mitterhoff after a lively improvisatory Q&A exchange: “This is the open discussion part of the show,” which got the biggest laugh of the evening. Jorma was like many powerful men in the autumn of their years, sitting like a wise Buddha, having seen and done it all and perfectly willing to let the music and the crowd take us on a journey. No question whatsoeverhe was in charge here and never seemed flustered by either the humorous crowd exhortations or the weird, insistent song requests during the breaks.

The two-set, two-hour evening was filled with classic covers, solo material and songs from his recent release, Stars in My Crown, which feature Mitterhoff on various acoustic instruments and the material translated quite well in an unplugged duo setting. Whereas most of the material takes on a humble religious tone with a nod to the great being upstairs, none of the songs either preach or grate against one’s own individual beliefs. If anything, Jorma and Barry did what they so often dowon new converts to their brand of traditional blues and folk country while making sure the old veterans are not even remotely disappointed. Case in point, the wonderful stretch of songs that included “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out,” followed by a “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” tease, “Heart Temporary,” the opening track from his new release, which got a “Lovely!” response from Mitterhoff, a laugh from the audience and a “Just callin’ em as I see em,” crack from Mitterhoff, again, onto “Fur Peace Rag,” a new instrumental number which pays sweet tribute to his guitar school/ranch of the same name in a lush country area of Ohio.

Later on, Mitterhoff would whip out the banjo before sliding into another strong new number, “There’s A Table Sitting in Heaven,” and a friendly bit of credo from Kaukonen: “We’re not hillbillies, anymore. We’re Appalachian Americans.” No doubt the Phoenix desert crowd, far removed from such green beauty, still ingested both the humor and the depth of his comment. This was mountain music we were hearing andlike all of the Old, Weird Americana that is such a rich part of our cultureit doesn’t seem to matter where it is played because the songs ring true if they are offered with sharp wit and gifted instrumentation. Either that or the Mountain came to the Desert, so to speak.

And this latter area is where Mitterhoff really excels. Whereas, Jorma Kaukonen could just phone it in and he could still sell out a joint the size of the Rhythm Room, Mitterhoff is the real deal as a multi-instrumentalist from acoustic guitar to mandolin to banjo to “What we feel,” joked Kaukonen, “is the instrument of the futurethe ukelele.” This artistic craftsmanship coupled with Kaukonen’s continuing passion for his brand of unplugged, unledded, GD-_Reckoning_-era, acoustic-on-a-chair folk music is enduring because the music appears to be coming from another place altogetheromnipresent but it needed this entity, this Jorma and Barry’ artifice to bring the art alive for all to see.

The second set was another delightfula non-heady term but one is hard-pressed to describe the group mood when all around are smilingheaping of Jorma and Barry as a well-oiled blues-country-gospel-jazz-jam machine. “Blue Railroad Train” began the set and like so many second sets from so many legendary jambands, it cooked right out of the station with a long ass workout jam while Mitterhoff played the mandolin as if his life depended upon it. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” a Pigpen-era and later Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead gold nugget, followed later on and appeared as the only odd moment in the show. A gal about ten feet from me collapsed twice during the song before paramedics were called. She appeared fine and was a bit embarrassed as she was escorted out by the local EMTs for precautionary measures but a friend later on e-mailed me that he thought it was a tad eerie that she would faint during that particular song. Ahhthe good ole Deador was it Pigpen having an early Halloween prank at our expense?

She survived and so did the set as the duo offered more classics sandwiched between some brief cultural history monologues from Kaukonen and gospel numbers written by the great Rev. Thomas A. Dorseya subject of the film _Say Amen, Somebody_who “wrote the most recorded gospel song of all time, “Precious Lord,” according to Kaukonen. More older solo material followed including “More Than My Old Guitar” and “Good Shepherd,” which included the best jam of the evening as the duo traded licks for a glorious frozen moment, back-and-forth they charged ahead, worked within and around each other’s ideas, reminding me that in the art of the jam, the four-armed man is king. “I Am the Light of the World,” by Rev. Gary Davis, from his 1974 debut solo debut, Quay sealed the deal on a gig that was equal parts spiritual lyrical awakening and homegrown musical tales shared with an occasionally rowdy yet receptive desert audience.

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