Hot Tuna Blues Tour, Carolina Theater, Durham, NC – 2/22
Photo by Vernon Webb
This was certainly not your standard Hot Tuna show. The accompanying line-up served to take Tuna into uncharted waters. This was an evening of music for fans with eclectic tastes and unerring reverence for music of timeless depth, strength and beauty.
The line-up, assembled by Columbia Artists Management, rolled into Durham’s nearly 90-year old Carolina Theater for the 19th show of its two-or-so-month “Hot Tuna Blues Tour.” Although by the end of the night I felt “Hot Tuna Revue” may have been a more appropriate name with the rotating cast of musical characters and the music extending far beyond simply The Blues.
The current core Hot Tuna trio commenced the opening acoustic set with “Hesitation Blues,” considered by many to be Jorma Kaukonen’s signature song despite having been written decades before he was born. Those who had not seen Tuna in recent were immediately shown why Barry Mitterhoff fits in so well, as his he judiciously wove his mandolin into the music. Here, as he would much of the night, he played with subtlety behind the vocals here, introduced thoughts from which Jorma would expound on his solos there, and at points just flat-out “tore it up” on his own solos. As to be expected these days, Kaukonen was in classic form almost immediately. It is astonishing how he has continued to improve as a player at his advanced age. He artfully merged drawn-out low notes with brief higher flurries while keeping it all decidedly musical. He later played ideal counterpoint to Casady’s articulated rolling thunder of a solo, and even deftly threw into some snazzy dissonance during the final chorus. I was struck by the clarity of sound, as Tuna has at times over the years made liberal use of distortion even in acoustic sets. Here the clear and rich sound was most appropriate inside the sonic idealism of the Carolina Theater. The guest parade had not even begun and I knew we were in for a doozie of a show.
GE Smith then made his debut, donning a dobro and joining on Jimmie Rodgers’ “I’m Free from the Chain Gang now.” Smith’s subtlety helped to layer what was a mesmerizing blend of instrumentation during this old time country blues number the execution of which deviated from the predominant Tuna ethos of yesteryear by featuring short lead sections. Kaukonen’s singing here (and on “Second Chances” later in the set) was indicative of just how much better of a vocalist he is now than he was twenty or so years ago. These two pieces would not have been nearly as effective without his clear vocals which were artfully phrased with palpable expressiveness. He had the room in the palm of his hand when he sang “chances are like crystal, they shatter when they fall” on the movingly reflective “Second Chances, ” (a Kaukonen original which appears on the forthcoming Hot Tuna release Steady As She Goes, the band’s first full length studio release in over two decades).
However it was during the (sadly) still appropriate “Uncle Sam Blues” that Charlie Musselwhite first graced the stage. The Mississippi native who spent several years cutting his teeth in Chicago and has played with a veritable “Who’s Who” of blues musicians (including Muddy Waters himself) in his four decade-plus career since has somewhere along the way become inarguably one of the greatest harmonica players who ever lived. His every note seemed laced with enthusiasm and informed by his healthy experience and genial spirit. Musselwhite’s keen listening abilities helped him settle into the world of Hot Tuna with seeming ease and the brevity of his approach allowed for not a note to be wasted. He quickly read Mitterhoff’s cue for interplay at the beginning of Barry’s solo, and in turn acutely aware of when to back off. His own solo soared and then he joined in on Kaukonen’s peppery repeated notes to help the band leader bring his own solo to a rousing climax.
“Nine Pound Hammer” found Jorma singing in his more traditional fashion – with an appropriately spirited growl and some “fall-behind-and-hurry-to-catch-up” phrasing. Jorma has arranged a central riff for this song so blatantly infectious that it has become the theme music for Fur Peach Ranch Radio, an Ohio Public Radio program featuring performances from Kaukonen’s own Fur Peach Ranch guitar teaching school. Mitterhoff and Smith (on a riser behind Casady) each took sterling solos and engaged each other in interplay along the way.
Jim Lauderdale then entered and brought his, what I call “Nashadaelica,” with him. Jorma offered nice melodic inputs which blended sweetly with Lauderdale’s high lonesome vocals on “Halfway Down” (a widely-covered Lauderdale original). The song rollicked along with a Hank Williams-esque honky tonk swagger, with Kaukonen and Casady offering brief adornments without departing drastically from the core feel of the piece. Lauderdale then gave a “shout-out” to the nearby Carolina Friends School which he attended many years ago. He then led group through two songs from last year’s Patchwork River, a collection of songs he co-penned with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The optimistic, “Good Together” had a distinct Bay Area feel, and Lauderdale sang the lead with earnest, although the choruses screamed for more vocal harmony. “Alligator Alley,” something of an activist ballad, was extremely well-received by the North Carolina audience. Jorma even dropped a quick bit of fuzz guitar behind Lauderdale’s singing of one of the “girl named Alice” lines, harkening back to Jefferson Airplane’s, “White Rabbit.” Charlie Musselwhite then returned to bring some funky harmonica to the loping country rhythms of “Headed for the Hills,” with Lauderdale’s voice again soaring triumphantly over the music. Mitterhoff even offered some vocal harmonies, Smith played a very brief but strong solo and Casady’s low-key, yet-still-bubbling-with-exuberance bass lines (not to mention occasional mouthing of the lyrics) indicated that this might be a Lauderdale favorite of his.
Musselwhite then assumed lead vocals for “Sad and Beautiful World,” a song he reportedly wrote with his mother in mind, and recorded with Mavis Staples on his 2010 release, The Well. Musselwhite’s conversational vocal style possesses elegance and an underlying smile which on this night for some reason also managed to at once place me in the mind of John Hartford and still convey the emotion of the song. His harmonica colorings were brought forth with the paucity for which Musselwhite has become revered over the years. Jorma then took center stage again to enrapture the crowd with some incredible left hand work as the band powered through a high energy acoustic-rockabilly take on “Just Because.”