Electric Hot Tuna
Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center
November 22, 2016
Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen
and bassist Jack Casady deserve to be playing venues such as Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center. Like The Egg in Albany, The Beacon in New York and the Fairfield Theater in Connecticut, this fairly new Stowe Vermont establishment is as well-designed, acoustically-impeccable and all-around comfortable as those venues, perfectly conducive to the mutual warmth in the experience conjured up within its walls on November 22nd.
Yet as plush as the surroundings were, the former guitarist and bassist for Jefferson Airplane, along with drummer Justin Guip, never coasted during the close to three hours they played this wintry night. Quite the contrary, in fact, because, contrary to any element of complacency some of the more casual attendees might've sensed, this electric Hot Tuna lineup brought a revivified air to the familiar two sets of material.
In both acoustic and electric formats (both of which Casady and Kaukonen have presented throughout the past year), Hot Tuna really don't play songs, they make music and there's a distinct difference between those two approaches. Each sequence of songs flowed effortlessly for their duration, evincing an almost imperceptible set of dynamics wherein tunes like Kaukonen's distinctive originals "I Can See the Light" and "Corners without Exits" meshed with outside material like that of blues icon Muddy Waters' "Can't Be Satisfied." The combination of such burnished material furthered the momentum of the musicianship.
And there was an altogether obvious sense of glee both on and off the stage during the course of the show. Whether it was Kaukonen's ongoing comic patter between songs, Casady's own humorous asides (and body language intentional and otherwise) to their mutual admiration of each other's licks, the lighthearted air was a natural outgrowth of the playing, such as the tricky transition on "Good Shepherd," that particular turn furthered by the kind of percussive accents Guip concentrated on all evening. Given the demographic of the audience, aligned with the seventy-plus years of the two main musicians in this band, it's no surprise there was little standing and dancing, but the fairly constant weaving and bobbing of heads in the cozy seats was direct reflection of the players' own generally subdued body language. There were no overt histrionics, no matter how intense the sound the trio conjured up.
And there were more than a few of those riveting moments, most but not all of which occurred with Kaukonen brandishing a Gibson guitar he favored as tool to create feedback and rip into solos and riffs like the one of "Bowlegged Woman Knock Kneed Man." Jorma's s playing is little if any less searing than it was some four decades ago (though his clipped vocal phrasing, as demonstrated on "Feel So Good," is novel) and the same can be said for his friend and playing partner of fifty years: Jack rumbled, roared and rang with his turquoise instrument and not just on the frenetic opening to "Funky #7:" it was possible to follow his bass lines in the mix all evening thanks equally to the sound-man and the room he was working.
The shout of "Hot $%^*ing Tuna" well into the evening represented an outburst of passion in line with the reality of a sold-out crowd in a market Hot Tuna works on a regular basis. Between South Burlington, Vermont's Higher Ground and Lebanon, New Hampshire's Opera House, one configuration or another of Hot Tuna has regularly appeared in this northeast market in recent years and it's a tribute to the loyalty of the band's followers that such regularly tour stops are beneficial all around; this artist-audience relationship is akin to the long-standing friendship, nurtured via infrequent but nonetheless regular get-togethers where the shared experiences of the past lead inevitably, not to mention immediately, to picking right up where the parties involved left off last time.
What's most important in this regard is that Kaukonen and Casady vary their activities just enough, inside and out the Hot Tuna oeuvre, to keep the concept of this band as fresh for themselves as their audience(s). As one excited attendee gushed in the lobby of Spruce Peak post-show, "You knew they were going to play"Water Song" but it was still a surprise!" Numerous such occurrences cropped up during the concert, from "Ode to Billy Dean" all the way to "Bar Room Crystal Ball," each of which stood as testament to the trio's respect for each other as musicians as well as the roots of their music as it inspired them to begin with.
Which accurately summarizes any Hot Tuna concert, except that it also minimizes the extent to which the principals are adding to an estimable blues-rock legacy that early on took the form of an opening couplet of "Ain't In No Hurry" and "Hesitation Blues" that in its, acoustic-textures set the stage for the raw, cacophonous likes "Rock Me Baby" long after the ensemble was fully warmed up. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady have every right to be proud of what they're doing, as does Guip based on the way he's channeling their uncanny camaraderie; on nights like this one in the Green Mountains, they're sharing with their followers the deep-rooted satisfaction they find in their collaboration, a partnership all the more rare and worthy of admiration because for the two principals, it's happening decades after the pair started to play together just for the joy of it.
This late 2016 Hot Tuna performance was proof positive that joy remains sufficiently resonant that the band can send crowds like this one out into Vermont's early winter wind and snow smiling in much the same way Kaukonen, Casady and Guip were beaming as they left the stage for the bus that would take them back on the road just before the Thanksgiving holiday.