Jorma Kaukonen with Barry Mitterhoff Higher Ground Showcase Lounge South Burlington, Vermont September, 15, 2011
Because Jorma Kaukonen's appearance at Higher Ground's Showcase Lounge was billed as a solo show, it was a bit unsettling to enter the intimate venue and see a rack of stringed instruments next to a second chair on the stage. All the more so, perhaps, for longtime fans of the ex-Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist to watch Barry Mitterhoff sit at the guitarist's left in place of long-time partner Jack Casady after the duo took the stage.
But it wasn't long into the near-three hour, two-set performance that such vague discontent disappeared. Granted, Kaukonen doesn't have the same telepathic connection with Mitterhoff as he does his bassist friend of fifty-some years, but their collaboration, as demonstrated via virtually every Hot Tuna acoustic classic, mixed with originals of Jorma's, remains unique.
Kaukonen has such affection and reverence for such songs as "How Long" and "Uncle Sam Blues" that, combined with his intuitive knowledge of playing the tunes at this point in his career, probably no one except Casady might match him on that front. But if Barry Mitterhoff's precise picking of mandolin and muted electric guitar, and chording on bouzouki is perhaps a bit too correct for its own good (in line with his studious visage), Kaukonen's influence is rubbing off on him. Based on a series of appearances in the Green Mountains with Tuna over the last few years, Mitterhoff's approach is becoming looser all the timeand to good effect.
In the meantime, the contrast is illustrative of the bond originally established between the two musicians during the recording of Kaukonen's solo album Blue Country Heart (Columbia, 2002) . And while the duo never strove to show off, even as they sped up during "I Know You Rider" late in the performance, the expertise and the consummate touch they share deserved the standing ovation they received after so many rounds of applause during the course of the two sets.
With his eminently Scandinavian profile accentuated by white hair and neatly trimmed beard, Jorma Kaukonen may seem, on the surface anyway, an unlikely candidate for stewardship of American blues dating back to Rev. Reverend Gary Davis
in the 1920s. But no-one could sound more authentic or devoted to songs of the genre such as "True Religion" of "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning."
With hardly the slightest reference to Kaukonen's history, apart from Mitterhoff's reference to the 1970's solo album Quah (RCA/Grunt), it does a disservice to the music and the artist by longing for the more pronounced and unpredictable rhythms applied to the material as originally arranged by Hot Tuna, especially because, as pointed out at a couple junctures, that band is alive and well, having just released its first studio album in 21 years, Steady As She Goes (Red House, 2011).
Kaukonen's self-penned excerpts from that record, such as "Second Chances," sound as solemn and somewhat saccharine as selections from his recent solo albums like "More Than My Old Guitar." But such tunes are also more conventionally constructed than "Been So Long" or "I See the Light," two older songs that at once seem to have nothing and everything to do with the guitarist's roots.
Alternating almost one-for-one the well-known material with the not-so-well known as the performance progressed made for a pace as easygoing as the folksy repartee between Kaukonen and Mitterhoff during the course of the evening. Little wonder more than one wag in the audience couldn't keep from between-song comments intended with all due friendship: it was only an extension of club co-owner Kevin Statesir's warm introduction of the musicians and the deeply comfortable, uplifting atmosphere shared by the (mostly-seated) patrons throughout the evening.