Live Music: Hot Tuna at McCabe’s

By Mike Finkelstein

Santa Monica, CA.  On Sunday night, in the second of two well-placed shows at McCabe’s, Hot Tuna gave a clinic in acoustic ensemble playing. Featuring founding Tuna members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, along with their now longtime mandolin collaborator Barry Mitterhoff, the group romped smoothly through a 90 minute set drawing mainly from their signature catalogue of country blues covers. Rounding out the set were their own rock driven original numbers that now go back decades to early Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane days.

There is something beautifully reaffirming in watching longtime musical partners play, something in the air and between the lines. Jorma and Jack have been playing together since they were teenagers in Virginia…this amounts to well over 50 years. It’s been a wild ride. From the psychedelic vortex of San Francisco in the ’60’s with Jefferson Airplane, to their ongoing country blues and rock-based project, Hot Tuna, these two have been side by side for pretty much the whole way. You can hear it in their playing. They know intuitively what the other is going to do and so they complement each other on the fly, in ways that take this long to develop. The fact that they put their own psychedelic stamp on something as stylized as country blues with a bass and an acoustic guitar is definitely winsome.

While Jorma lovingly gigs at McCabe’s on what seems to be an annual basis, he doesn’t always have his bud Jack Casady beside him. So, on Sunday it was a special treat to watch them do what they do best live in McCabe’s back room. Jorma’s finger-picking and Jack’s octave leaning, softly clicking bass lines, and liquid flurries kept the audience right there in the groove with them.

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen
Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen

Considering that the set was only 13 songs long, Hot Tuna covered much musical ground, both on the popular and less travelled paths. They opened with Jimmy Cox’s marvelous standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” playing it crisp and bouncy. After some loose banter, they launched into what was once a heavy mid ’70’s Tuna rock piece, “Serpent of Dreams” from America’s Choice. Their acoustic treatment of this tune supports the idea that a great set of chords and voicings can rock, yes, really rock, whether or not electric instruments are involved. They got the same effect on “Trial By Fire,” another lesser-known Jefferson Airplane tune from Long John Silver. This process of reinvention is how fans and musicians alike delightfully rediscover songs they hadn’t considered for some time.

Hot Tuna used to be one of the loudest rock bands around in the ’70’s. But they always loved to play acoustic as well (their legendary first album was a live acoustic performance). In this ensemble they have the low, the middle, and the high parts represented by three of the best around. With a mildly amplified electric bass, finger-picked acoustic guitar, and a mandolin, Hot Tuna had a dynamic sound with that sweet space between the instruments…a sound that could shrink and swell, and then pivot on a dime.

On Sunday they proved that it’s not entirely the volume or distortion that makes the rockin’ songs swing, it’s also how the guitar and bass contrast. The key to it seemed to be in Jack’s timely lowest notes, which would rumble beautifully and surge forth to pump the changes up into something huge.

Hot Tuna really did make all the choices in the set count. There were Hot Tuna standards like “Keep on Truckin’,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” (one of the band’s favorite Gary Davis songs) “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” and “Come Back Baby.” Also making the list were “Vicksburg Stomp,” with some inspired runs from Jack and Barry, and the beautiful “Second Chances,” from the band’s most recent album Steady As She Goes. A nice surprise turned out to be “I’ll Be All Right Someday,” from Jorma’s Quah album.

This show lasted nearly an hour and a half but it felt more like 40 minutes. I know I’ll be back again the next time they roll through McCabes. Can’t get enough of this music.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Photo by Barry Berenson, courtesy of Hot Tuna.

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