Hot Tuna In Concert: The Triumphant Return of Higher Ground

Doug Collette By

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The Casady/Kaukonen camraderie has endured with distinction for upward of four and a half decades now
Hot Tuna
Higher Ground
South Burlington VT
December 2, 2004

Higher Ground reopened to the resoundingly positive note(s) of an evening with Hot Tuna on Thursday December 2nd. The club brought an end to its six-month hiatus, as the venerable blues-rockers christened its new South Burlington location with a sold-out show of acoustic and electric blues that simply could not have constituted a better opening night.

Local news was on hand to film the line outside as it grew from the doors out around the building an into the parking lot. With the show delayed approximately half-an hour due to final state inspections, the audience was nevertheless happy to remain outside in the relatively mild early winter weather a few more minutes after having waited all these weeks for the increasingly famous venue to reopen.

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, erstwhile members of Jefferson Airplane, were joined as they have been the last year or son by mandolier/banjoist Barry Mitterhoff, in a low key acoustic opening that featured less tuna staples than selections from Jorma's Grammy-nominated Blue Country Heart album such as "Waiting for a Train" and "Blues Stay Away from Me." Despite now being positioned stage right at a distance from the bassist and guitarist, Mitterhoff often remains an intrusive agent, but he couldn't interrupt the chemistry between Kaukonen and Casady on "I See The Light" and especially "Good Shepherd": with Jorma and Barry proving a rhythmic backdrop, Casady took off on a solo excursion as melodic as it was propulsive, finishing by comping chords on his giant electric bass.

The understated set suggested Tuna was seeing the evening not in separate sets but one extended musical interlude and the noticeable absence of well-known material during their first hour or so was still preferable to many of the selections included on a pair of archival Hot Tuna titles, Live in Japan and Live at Sweetwaters Two , just released on Eagle Records. There's no denying the camaraderie of Casady and Kaukonen on songs they've played for upward of four and half-decades now, such as "Hesitation Blues" and "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning;" in fact, it's a testament to the timelessness of the blues genre that these once youthful players picked up on the character of this music and turned it from an avocation---as respite from Jefferson Airplane's increasingly political bent in the late sixties—to a vocation that has endured with such distinction.

But it's also a depiction of how democracy doesn't always aid and abet a band when members of the Tuna lineup of the time, most conspicuously Michael Falzarano, whose role at the time, is even more prominent and thus more distracting than Barry Mitterhoff's is today. The guitarist/vocalist simply doesn't have the feel for the blues as displayed by the two leaders of the group nor is he even as technically-skilled a musician as Mitterhoff. Today's Hot Tuna might do well to offer their current shows as live downloads from the web or release a show or two on cd rather than delve into the archives any more deeply than this.

Such thoughts came to mind during the vigorous cacophony of electric Tuna in Vermont when the three were joined by fluid drummer Erik Diaz. When he wasn't simply drowned out by the roar of Kaukonen's big red Epiphone electric guitar, on dirty blues such as "Rock Me Baby" and "I Wish You Would," where the burly guitarist reminded what the phrase 'mind-bending' meant before it became a cliché, Mitterhoff added just the right acoustic textures to Jorma's originals such as "Living Just for You" that derive directly from the kind of folk-blues that comprised most of the first set. When the quartet soared off via Kaukonen's rapid picking and Casady's long runs into "Water Song," they were proving themselves no mere fossils from a decade long past, but a group of long standing, continuously fertile musicianship.

Given impetus by performances at Jorma's Fur Peace Ranch(an independent music instructional school), and described as the "latest greatest Tuna ever" by the unusually voluble Casady (who danced on and off as he played?!?), it was at this point difficult to tell who was having the most fun in the acoustically-solid, freshly-painted and finished Higher Ground—the audience or the band. Earlier in the evening, Jorma had happily remarked to a delighted crowd how 'lucky you are to have this place.' Hard to believe there were any dissenters present then or when the show finally finished after midnight, with two encores that effectively began a new era in live music that should prosper for some time to come.

Visit Hot Tuna on the web.

Personnel: Jorma Kaukonen: guitars and vocals; Jack Casady: bass; Barry Mitterhoff: mandolin and banjo; Eric Diaz: drums

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