Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hot Tuna @ The Calvin Theater, September 4th, 2008

Good old Hot Tuna played the Calvin in Northampton last night, and Naomi and I were there to catch it. After a hastily prepared but tasty dinner--featuring, what else, Hot Tuna! Lovely tuna steaks, that is, with cous-cous and other goodies--we walked to the theater and walked in on the opening act, a mister David Lindley. I didn't know it at the time (last night, that is), but I now learn that this guy got his break as one of Jackson Browne's backing musicians. What I saw was an old guy, sitting on stage playing a variety of stringed instruments on his lap, with a slide (sidenote: people not sympathetic to this kind of music might snidely suggest that this distinguishes Lindley from the featured act by the fact that the featured act consists of three old men with stringed instruments and don't use slides, a thought that makes me smile even though I know it's unfair). Highlights included Bruce Springsteen's "Brothers under the Bridge," Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road," and a David Lindley original about being brought down by the backstage food.

But enough about that.

Hot Tuna are a marvel of musicianship. This was the fourth time I've seen them, and the third time I've been blown away. The second time I saw them, at the Beacon in November of 2002, their show was a bit too laid back as I recall. Plus, at that time, Michael Falzarano was still playing with them, and I'd never been too crazy about his contributions to the band. But even then, the interplay between Jorma and Jack was tasty, and then some, and they even whipped out "Serpent of Dreams" at that show, a song from America's Choice (1975) which I never could have imagined performed acoustically until it happened. Last night, with Jorma and Jack accompanied by another virtuoso, Barry Mitterhoff (who stole the show at Tuna's electric gig at the Beacon in 2006), the magic was there right from the opening number, "Search My Heart." On that song, it was all about interplay and responsiveness between the musicians. Not much heat, but plenty of warmth. The heat came next, with Reverend Gary Davis' "Candyman." On record, this one always features a Jack Casady bass solo and, last night, he did not disappoint. After the "get your baby some beer" verse, Jorma and Barry strummed the rhythm while Jack laid out and showed why some folks (including me at various times in my life) think this guy is the bass player to beat all bass players.

Their set tapped songs old and new (for the complete list, see Jorma's website: They played a few songs that they had recently recorded for a Jorma solo album, including "Nashville Blues" and a fantastic Roy Book Binder song called "Full Go Round." They played a couple of tunes from Jorma's most recent solo album (Stars in My Crown, recorded on Red House): "Heart Temporary," which sounds much better on record, with the full production, and "Late Breaking News," one of Jorma's funnest originals. They dipped way back into their catalogue, as they generally do, for songs from their first albums. They even did a long jam on "Good Shepherd," which originally appeared on Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers album (1969), which featured particularly fine solos from Jorma and Barry.

Picking a favorite from the show is hard, but I recall feeling the most satisfied by "I See the Light." This is one that was originally recorded with the electric band for Phosphorescent Rat (1973), was the highlight from the live album Double Dose (1977), and later made an acoustic appearance on Live at Sweetwater (1993). Last night, it was a wonder to behold, an aboslutely fantastic example of virtuosos devoting their talents to ensemble playing, keeping the solos to a minimum and really working the song over. The bridge and instrumental climax to this song made me indescribably happy. Later on, their jams on "Bread Line Blues" and "I Know You Rider" were both fantastic, with all three musicians given space to solo.

The audience was a bit disappointing. The show clearly did not sell out, and people were leaving pretty early. The band played for over two hours (a longer set than plenty of musicians half their ages play these days) and only an hour into it, the Calvin had already begun to clear somewhat. Naomi pointed out that a number of women sitting nearby had begun to fall asleep. And, as always happens at Hot Tuna shows, there were occasional shout-outs of "Hot Fucking Tuna!" and one pathetic, mind-addled moron screaming out random junk about the band to no one in particular: "Talk to Me!" "That's a REAL bass player!" "67!" "San Fransisco Sound!" and on and on. Amusing in limited doses, annoying when extended throughout the performance.

The musicians didn't talk too much from the stage. Jack didn't speak at all. Jorma introduced a few of the songs, and he looked amused by some of the audience...participation. "Well then," he said a number of times. A couple of people had called out for songs from the Burgers album (1972), so, after Jorma announced that they were going to play "Sea Child" (which they opened with back at the Beacon in '06), he then said, "and that's from Burgers--so there!" It was actually the first half of a Burgers twofer; they followed it up with "Let Us Get Together." Barry was the most verbal. He actually gave a long advertisement for the band' merchandise, announcing certain products that had sold out (including Jack's solo album, which was a surprise to hear), and generously recounting the history of the Jack-and-Jorma relationship. He even noted that there were some Tony Trischka band albums for sale, on which he himself played, and suggested them, with surprising sheepishness, for “any bluegrass fans out there.” He paused at this point, clearly hoping for a big shout-out for bluegrass. He (and I) were a bit disappointed by the response.

The set ended with “Just Because,” from Jorma’s Blue Country Heart (2002). I don’t know who wrote this one, but I know that Elvis Presley has a great version of it, and it sounded damn good last night. The encores were solid versions of “Uncle Sam Blues” and the one (and, to my knowledge, only) song of Hot Tuna’s to get any significant radio airplay during the 1970s, “Keep on Trucking,” also from Burgers. David Lindley joined in on those two, and his slide guitar solos were mighty keen.

I loved the show so much, I’m already contemplating a trip to see one of their electric shows during their annual Thanksgiving-to-Christmas tour. They’re playing Town Hall in NYC and a couple of New England dates. I’ll see if I can catch one. You should too.

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