Electric Hot Tuna (Jorma’s Birthday Celebration), Beacon Theatre, NYC – 12/3-4
Photo by Vernon Webb
Jorma Kaukonen, one of the most highly esteemed living American roots-guitarists, is turning 70 later this month. To mark the momentous occasion, Jorma and his longtime band Hot Tuna (in their electric incarnation) played two celebratory birthday shows at the Beacon Theater on December 3rd and 4th. Jorma, a founding member of both the aforementioned Hot Tuna as well as Jefferson Airplane, has been a mainstay on the scene for over forty years. Consequently, he has garnered a whole host of musical friends and cohorts, many of whom came to pay tribute to the legendary guitarist over the course of
the two-night run.
Friday night’s show began at 8:05 with two back-to-back classics from Tuna’s 1973 Phosphorescent Rat album: “I See the Light” and “Corners without Exits.” Jorma’s bluesy guitar playing was in top-form as soon as he hit the stage and the early solos he traded with mandolin-player Barry Mitterhoff were electrifying. Although the only two members of the band who have consistently been part of its lineup since its formation in 1970 are Jorma and bassist Jack Casady (also an Airplane alumnus), the role of Jorma’s melodic instrumental foil (whether fiddle-player Papa John Creach in Tuna’s early days or keyboardist Pete Sears in the 90s) has always been integral to their sound and Mitterhoff is as formidable a foil as Jorma has ever had.
While these early songs were well executed, in retrospect, they merely foreshadowed the epic musical heights the band would eventually reach. The show really began to take off about five songs into the first set, as the guests started trickling in to pay tribute to the man-of-the-hour. The first guest was Woodstock guitarist Happy Traum, probably best known to the Beacon audience for his collaboration with Bob Dylan on the Greatest Hits Vol. 2 tracks “I Shall Be Released” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (more on that song later). Traum played acoustic guitar on “Sportin’ Life Blues.” One of the interesting things about these shows was that although the band was billed as Hot Tuna electric, in reality, they alternated between their acoustic and electric formats every two or three songs (although Casady never put down his electric bass, even during the acoustic numbers). As Traum walked off stage, Jorma wryly remarked that Happy is one of the few people he still plays with who is older than himself. “When I grow up,” he said with a smirk, “I want to be just like him.”
After a couple of more guest-less Tuna numbers, the band was joined by acoustic blues guitarist John Hammond, who Jorma met at Antioch college in 1960; the two have been friends ever since. “John was the first person I ever knew who became a star,” Jorma said of his old friend. Their on-stage embrace was one of the more poignant moments of the evening. It was moments such as this which lent the two nights an extra level of meaning; as incredible as the music was, the love displayed by everyone who graced the stage was equally as entertaining.
The last two songs of the first set established the tone for how the rest of the evening would proceed. First, the band brought out Bill Kirchen and Larry Campbell (on fiddle) for Kirchen’s “Talkin’ Bout Chicken.” Jorma has known Kirchen since the late 60s, when he was a member of Jefferson Airplane and Kirchen played guitar for Commander Cody. “That seems like another life,” Jorma quipped about the time the two shared in the Bay Area forty years ago. The set closed with a crowd-pleasing version of the Hot Tuna cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Come Back Baby” which featured one more guest: Warren Haynes, a man who has probably played the Beacon more times than any other musician alive. This version may be the definitive version of the classic cover, as Jorma, Barry Mitterhofff, Bill Kirchen, Larry Campbell (still on fiddle) and Warren all traded incredible solos. Jorma acted as the conductor, pointing at each soloist to indicate when it was his turn. It was truly a sight to behold and it left the crowd salivating for more as the lights came up for set-break.
The second set began with the band picking up their acoustic instruments for great versions of their hit “The Water Song” as well as “99 Year Blues,” both of which featured Byron House (who played on Jorma’s 2002 Grammy nominated album Blue Country Heart) on upright bass. The bass interplay between House and Casady added an interesting new dimension to these two Hot Tuna staples and it was nice to see Jack get some attention on such a guitar-heavy night. House then exited the stage and Larry Campbell re-entered to play guitar on “Genesis, ” a song that originally appeared on Quah, Jorma’s 1974 album with Tom Hobson, but has long since been an integral part of Hot Tuna’s repertoire (similar to the way the Grateful Dead adopted early Jerry Garcia solo numbers “Sugaree,” “Loser” and “The Wheel”). Larry has been spending a lot of time with Hot Tuna lately, as he is currently producing their first electric album in over twenty years, which they recorded at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock (Larry is the lead guitarist and musical director for the Levon Helm Band). Larry added beautiful lead guitar to what is already a beautiful song, and his solo was one of the highlights of the evening. It was reminiscent of the way Mikey Houser used to play lead on the song when it was covered by Widespread Panic.
For the next number, “Bowlegged Woman,” Warren came back out and the crowd was treated to another onstage shred-fest, as Jorma, Barry, Larry and Warren each wowed the audience with their virtuosity. The band then reverted to its acoustic format and brought out Bruce Hornsby, who played dulcimer and sang on “Children of Zion.” Bruce then moved to the grand piano (answering the question of who would be playing the piano that had been on stage all night) and Larry came back —this time on fiddle again—for an epic version of “I Know You Rider” (a song which Bruce played many times with the Grateful Dead in the early 90s and Larry was familiar with from the time he spent as a core member of Phil Lesh and Friends). As great as this version was, it did feature a somewhat awkward moment when both Casady and Hornsby attempted to solo at the same time, neither one knowing if he should
back down. Eventually, Casady deferred to the guest. After a couple of more straight Hot Tuna numbers—including a song from the forthcoming album, “If This Is Love, I Want My Money Back”—the band brought Bill Kirchen, Larry and Warren back out for a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rock Me Baby” (which featured some particularly powerful soloing from Warren) and a nearly 13 minute version of “Funky #7.” The latter featured the evening’s best jam; it started as a guitar duel between Larry and Warren that rivaled most of the duels he has with his Allman Brothers Band foil Derek Trucks, and culminated with them jamming in unison and reaching Olympian musical heights. The four core Hot Tuna members (Jorma, Jack, Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Skoota Warner) then re-emerged for a brief, single-song encore of “Hit Single #1.” All and all, it was a near-perfect musical evening which left the crowd abuzz with anticipation about what Saturday night had in store.