Jorma Kaukonen, City Winery, NYC – 4/11
What better way to spend a cold, rainy spring day than nestling into a beautiful performance space for an afternoon of Jorma Kaukonen’s smoking acoustic roots music? The legendary guitarist and his common cohort of the past five years or so, mandolin master Barry Mitterhoff, were at the City Winery, a new venue just north of Canal Street, to celebrate the release of his new disc River of Time, and were joined by the album’s producer and frequent guest-contributor, Larry Campbell. The album runs a range of material, from old Tuna standards to covers to new material, and notably features Levon Helm on three cutsit’s a warm, graceful document, a pair for Blue Country Heart nearly seven years laterand the trio drew heavily on its material to cook up a warm glow at the earliest early show I’ve ever seen, 3 PM.
A delicate and quiet “What Are They Doing in Heaven” opened the first set before a quick kicking “Been So Long” upped the energy, especially as the band cut through the final passage. On “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere,” Barry was pickin’ as good as the title, playing over Jorma’s intricate phrasing. The guitarist was closed-eyed as he sang out, “There’s more love somewhere, there’s more love somewhere” Larry immediately fit right in with Jorma and Barry, filling in the empty spaces without crowding the music, fueling his friends and feeding on the music. During “Trouble in Mind” he played a nasty metal slide to match Jorma’s forceful voice, even getting a “Yeah!” and raised eyebrows during his solo, but he was just as quick to pull out a fiddle, bouzouki or guitar, ready to meet the music with whatever it called for.
The group was all smiles, radiating a comfortable joy from the stage, and Jorma and Barry were full of banter, joking between songs and recounting little tales about the new material from River of Time. Theresa Williams and Jorma’s guitar tech Myron Hart joined to supply backing vocals on “Old Fair Ground” before the set closing “I See the Light.” A burst of feedback hit in the first few lines, so the trio slowed down and Jorma mumbled into his mic, “We’re building momentum now, so stick with us.” And then they took off, Larry spilling leads over the rapids of the song, nice long statements, while Barry played bouzouki. They whipped up a ripping three way jam, Jorma stomping his foot in time as he strummed into the instrumental finale, his face glowinga perfect closer.
The second set was short, more a long encore than a proper set. “The people here / They treat me fine / They give me beer / They give me wine” from "Nashville Blues” seemed a particularly good way to start, based on the setting. Barry shredded the lead fast and clean, Jorma calling out, “Yikes!” as he climaxedin fact he called out repeatedly throughout the show in obvious admiration for his band mates. But on “Search My Heart” it was Jorma who was at the heart of everything, picking so deep and warm, and letting the rest of the instrumentation wrap around him, as natural as could be. At some point Larry played a bluesy steel slide solo and Barry called back playfully, but it was back to Jorma at the end, bringing the song home, full and round. A cover of Pigpen’s “Operator” was followed by a slow, heavy “Come Back Baby”, Jorma belting out the lyrics, or growling low, each in turn. He took the first lead, cutting into the old standard with easy boldness, and meshing with Larry for a grinding jam at the end. The pair’s prowess was again on display on “More Than My Old Guitar”they played like magic, drawing in Barry’s jazzy hollow-body tones at times too. The show closed with “Another Man Done Gone”, Jorma half joking, “Nobody loves songs about death more than I do,” and long, grooved out “99 Year Blues” encore. It was certainly too early to call it quits, but then again, like a good album, the show left everyone smiling and eager to hear it again.