Monday, December 7, 2009

Hot Tuna @ The Beacon Theater, New York City, December 5th, 2009

This past Saturday night, I attended one of the best concerts I've seen in a long time. It was electric Hot Tuna, and they blew the roof off the Beacon Theater. They played for just shy of 2 hours, and it was the loudest, most raucous I've ever heard them. Intense, guitar-laden psychedelic blues-rock...and yet adjectives like that don't seem sufficient for what I heard.

The band hit the stage at about 5 minutes past 9:00, and I picked up on two things very quickly. One thing was the new drummer, Skoota Warner, who came on stage with a big smile on his face, a smile which rarely vanished. I instinctively knew this guy would be good. The second thing was the 5th member of the band--it was none other than GE Smith, the former Saturday Night Live band leader. I'd known that he'd played with Jorma before and that he'd given lessons at Jorma's guitar camp, but I didn't know that they'd be playing together this evening. Good news, I suspected...correctly as it turned out.

The relevance of these two things became apparent very quickly. Jorma, Barry, and GE took up their instruments, and a bit of quivering feedback emanated from the stage. Jorma and Skoota looked at each other as the noise got a bit louder. Then Skoota counted off a 1-2-3-4 on the drum sticks, and the band launched "Wish You Would" into the Beacon as their first offering. It was faster than I'm used to hearing it, and it was also loud, loose, and heavy. And fabulous. Jorma was singing particularly well this evening. He must have realized that he'd better bring it to rise to the sound of the electric band. During the instrumental portions, he played his solos the way he always does, sort of a mixture of Chicago-style blues, finger-picked blues of the sort that he loves best, and the feedback-drenched licks that he played as Jefferson Airplane's lead guitar player from '65 to '72. He was glorious. But so was Barry, who moved from electric mandolin to electric guitar to other electric stringed instruments that looked like combinations of mandolin and guitar. And then GE Smith was the added bonus, playing some flashy blues rock guitar that reminded me some of Joe Perry from Aerosmith: much more "standard" guitar playing than the other two, but at a very high quality and in a context that made his playing seem aggressive and tasteful at the same time. I didn't time that opening song, but it felt like it must have been almost 10 minutes long.

I hope that Tuna recorded the concert and puts a recording on sale on, because it was the best I've ever heard them sound in concert. The show bore little resemblance to the shows at the Calvin that I've seen. In fact, the band even sounded a bit different from the other electric Tuna shows I've seen (both at the Beacon, one in 2006, the other in 1999). With GE Smith playing guitar, and Skoota Warner rocking harder than either of the other drummers I've heard them play with, Hot Tuna sounded more like the mid-1970s hard rock version of Tuna than I ever imagined they would. It was loud; damn loud, and I was sitting in the 4th row of the loge, immediately underneath the balcony. Great seats...and the volume level was still getting to me enough that I wish I'd had ear plugs.

Skoota and GE made their presences in the band felt. After "I Wish You Would," they moved on to another oldie: "True Religion" from Burgers (1972). Skoota Warner kept a steady beat for that one: it didn't speed up like it does on the record. It gave the guitarists ample room to stretch out and solo. Then came yet another oldie, recently rerecorded for a Jorma album: "Been So Long," which was the most lyrical moment of the entire show. GE Smith sat out for the next number, "Living Just for You," from The Phosphorescent Rat (1973), another lyrical number that still managed to be pretty hard-rocking. It's one of the most commercial-sounding songs Jorma has ever written I think. Listen for the steel drums on the studio version. After that, GE Smith returned to the stage and didn't leave again.

That opener, "Wish You Would" was full of intense jamming, but there was plenty more to come. "Come Back Baby" was so great that half the Beacon stood in appreciation as the song came to an end. "Good Shepherd" and "Rock Me Baby" stretched out to over 10 minutes. At the end of "Bowlegged Woman," which featured Jack's fabulous bass part, Skoota immediately began a drum beat that sort of reminded me of the beginning of Richard Shindell's "Arrowhead." Then, GE stepped up to the mike and sang, "Mama...if you could see me now...." Good Lord--it was "Arrowhead!" Hot Tuna playing a Richard Shindell song: will wonders never cease? During that one, Jorma and Barry sort of stood back and let GE take over. There was even a new verse, here repeated from memory: "Mama...there's a noose around my neck / this is what deserters get / there's a horse resting between my knees / he'll move soon, then I'll be free / Mama...there's a noose around my neck." How 'bout that? GE Smith also sang lead on something called "Let it Rock," or something like that. It was a straight-up hard rock song; nothing too special, but loud and raucous and fun. And Jorma sang lead on a brand new song that he introduced as being about "a different kind of candy man" and is called "If This It Love, I Want My Money Back." I loved it: again, loud and rocking.

The finale was "Talking 'Bout You" and then "Funky #7." After "Talkin'," someone came out a few paces from the wings to hold up a sign to Jorma, clearly letting him know that it was time to wrap things up. And "Funky #7" is the way to do it. Rather than describe it, I will simply recommend looking for a recording, either from or from iTunes: looking for either the original recording from America's Choice (1975) or the live version from Double Dose (1977).

I sense that, as with the last show I saw at the Calvin, there was a bit of improvisation that went along with the set list. A set list there clearly was, as I noticed Jorma looking down at it after every song. But it looked like that band was acutely time-conscious, and Jorma was making some quick decisions as to what would be skipped and what would be played. I read some comments from Jorma once about the 11:00 curfew at the Beacon; something having to do with union rules, perhaps. Anyhow, in between songs, Jorma would walk around the stage, having a word with band members, presumably about the progress of the set. His stage presence is rather reserves. During the performances, the other band members stood out more, bopping up and down, moving around the stage, and grinning up a storm (incidentally, Barry Mitterhoff, as good as he sounded, looked a bit uncomfortable "rocking out"--this is not the kind of thing he usually does as a bluegrass player; looked like he was having fun though). Jorma is more reserved...but there is no mistaking whose band this is: Jorma's and Jack's. But mainly Jorma's.

Here's the full set, double-checked from Jorma's website:
1. Wish You Would
2. True Religion
3. Been So Long
4. Living Just For You
5. Come Back Baby
6. Let It Rock
7. Cracks In The Finish
8. Good Shepherd
9. If This Is Love, I Want My Money Back
10. Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man
11. Arrowhead
12. Rock Me Baby
13. Talkin’ Bout You
14. Funky #7

I can't say enough good things about electric Hot Tuna. Something about seeing a couple of 60-somethings leading such a loud band makes me very happy. That the band is also really, really good just doubles my joy.

Loudon Wainwright opened the show with about 45 minutes of solo guitar and songs. For the first time in a while, he seemed not that impressive, but I think that had to do with the atmosphere. Popular though the man is, this was a Hot Tuna audience. Anyhow, he played a bunch of new songs, most of which I heard him play at the Calvin earlier this fall, that he calls "Songs for the New American Depression" or something like that. He played "Heaven," during which he made reference to how great everything would be when we're all "gratefully dead," which elicited big applause from the audience. "You're easy to manipulate," the singer said in response. He also did a couple of songs from High Wide and Handsome (2009), along with two--count 'em: two--other songs: "The Grammy Song," in honor of the Grammy nomination for his most recent album, and "The Acid Song," in honor of the fact that he was opening for former hippies. That last one I never expected to hear him perform live, and I was delighted. It was easily the high point of his performance.


Matt Winters said...

The whole review I was thinking, "Barry Mitterhoff rocking out? I have trouble picturing that." So the description at the end made sense to me. I can't even really picture him playing electric guitar.

And that is SO cool about "Arrowhead" -- wow! And a new verse! Damn!

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