Jorma Kaukonen & Barry Mitterhoff, Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River, MA- 1/18
Just after the opener, “Reenlistment Blues,” Jorma Kaukonen turned to his partner for the last half dozen years or so, mandolin player extraordinaire Barry Mitterhoff, and laughingly said, “Nice solo Barry. You were sort of lurking and then you pounced.” That wasn’t the half of it. Barry killed the lead, so sharp and sweet, and it set the tone for a whole night of the very best acoustic blues in one of New England’s finest venues, the Narrows Center for the Arts. The room is the top floor of an old riverfront mill building with the rafters and pipes zigzagging across the high ceiling, and a sold out show, such as this one, means there is plenty of room for everyone to have a seat on the old church pews arranged in rows ten deep, not to mention ample space for dancing along the fringes. Another promoter might cram three times as many bodies into the room, but the Narrows is all about atmosphere and comfort, all about creating the ideal space for a night such as this, where the audience followed a dynamic duo down a trail of old timey tunes sparked by stunning virtuosity.
The first set continued with “Blue River Train,” wherein Jorma set up a droning figure that Barry raced over and laced with clean, bright leads. “How Long Blues” and “More Than My Old Guitar” then gave way to the title track off of Jorma’s latest release. “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown” came off much better than the studio version. That whole album has a weird sonic quality and seems overly orchestrated, but played in this format, all the material off it could easily stand on its own.
“I See the Light” pushed the music to another level- it was hold your breath intense, even in the early verses, and during the finale jam, the pair created a mesmerizing density of buzz and picking that had the whole room leaning toward the stage. They followed up with a rare “Sea Child” from way back in the early days, a treat warmly acknowledged by the gathered masses. A Hank Williams cover (Jorma and Barry had just hosted a tribute night the previous evening at New York’s Merkin Hall- “Lincoln Center Light” Jorma called it) and a super hot version of “Rider,” complete with a lightning fast Barry solo after the second verse, finished the set in grand form.
After a short break, the mass reconvened with “That’ll Never Happen No More.” Jorma played a pair of halting rhythm lines early on and then again later. It was a pair of the briefest moments but quite playful and it expressed the joy of the night. “Come Back Baby” was glacially slow as Jorma picked out leads over his own strumming. The tone then shifted again for an outrageous “Serpent of Dreams.” Here the music was rather quiet and full of anticipation at the start of the jam, as while JK may be a scary looking craggy faced old Nordic spirit, he can be the most gentle and delicate soul on the planet, in his voice and playing. I’m pretty sure the nature of his force rests in his airy, whiskey coated grumbles and in the way he can rip down the neck of a Martin, coasting across the frets, or stay tightly clustered midway up, a left hand dancing in cycles.
The night peaked with "Good Shepherd," an offering unlike any other, one that had the geriatric patrons howling on their feet and the scruffy roots rockers stomping and pounding pews, all of which culminated with Jorma and Barry seated and bowed their heads, just letting the good energy wash over them. Jorma sang out the old spiritual, “One for to make my heart rejoice” and swung it over to a low railroad rumble, washed with great little surges of sophistication. He worked it all down to an awesome stillness with Barry’s whispering, crystalline notes. It was so quiet I could hear the woman next to me breathing, and then the music spiraled off into the greatest wave rolling jam, Barry lurching forward and falling back to get lost in Jorma’s nimble flood of notes; exploding out again with a leap and soaring over the crests. Amazing. The movement had the sensibility of the very best “Bird Song” jam, only better.
The show finished with a scorching “Light of This World” and an intense “Genesis” encore, but it was the “Good Shepherd” oh children, the “Good Shepherd”