When their attention shifted at the dawn of the 1970s to the bluesy Hot Tuna, which gave an amazing performance at the Lobero Theatre on Thursday night for a hugely appreciative audience, guitarist Jorma Kaukonenn and bassist Jack Casady were already assured a place in rock ‘n’ roll history. As members of the San Francisco psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane, they played on the hits “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” and some of the best albums of the ‘60s (the folk-rock gem Surrealistic Pillow, the psychedelic masterwork After Bathing At Baxter’s, the acid come-down Crown of Creation, and the political call-to-arms Volunteers), and were at many of the decade’s key cultural events (the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and Altamont).
Now more than 40 years later, on tour and with a new album Steady As She Goes coming out in a matter of weeks, Hot Tuna is as strong as ever.
At Thursday’s show, Kaukonen (who also sang most of the songs) and Casady were joined by Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin and tenor guitar, Skoota Warner on drums, and blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. Unfortunately, bluegrass whiz Jim Lauderdale and guitarist G.E. Smith could not join as scheduled for personal reasons.
The acoustic first set kicked off with “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” a song by the Rev. Gary Davis, who was a huge influence on Kaukonen’s acoustic guitar style. Next up was the song perhaps most associated with Hot Tuna — “Hesitation Blues,” another song with a Davis connection. This song featured a bluesy mandolin solo by Mitterhoff and a killer bass solo by Casady. In case there was any doubt, these boys can play!
Speaking of great playing, Musselwhite added his tasteful blues harp to “Uncle Sam Blues,” and took over vocals for his cool new song “Sad And Beautiful World,” for which Mitterhoff added harmonies.
The first set included two songs off the upcoming Hot Tuna album — the reflective “Second Chances” and a fast-paced old gem called “Vicksburg Stomp” first performed ages ago by the Mississippi Mud Steppers with Charlie McCoy on mandolin.
But as enjoyable as the first set was, things really took off in the electric second set. First up was “Ode For Billy Dean,” which gave a showcase for Kaukonen’s smoking guitar playing. Although the song was well-received, Kaukonen joked that the crowd seemed “well behaved,” not such a flattering characterization of a rock ‘n’ roll crowd. When an audience member shouted out “we’re old,” Kaukonen responded “I hear ya, brother. I’m coming, Elizabeth,” a reference to Redd Foxx’s famous phrase when he thought his time was near on the 1970s sit-com Sanford and Son.
Musselwhite took the lead for a few more songs, including the gritty “Cryin’ Won’t Help You,” which he learned back in his days of playing on the streets of Chicago for tips, and “If I Should Have Bad Luck” and “Where Highway 61 Runs,” which were on CDs for sale at the merchandise table that Musselwhite was shamelessly hawking from onstage.
The new album was further represented by two great songs — the Davis tune “Children of Zion” nicely electrified, and “If This Is Love,” a rocking song with the amusing lines “if this is love / I want my money back.”
Particularly cool were “Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man,” stretched out to epic length with Casady providing a funky bassline and Kaukonen really letting it rip, and “Christo Redemptor” from Musselwhite’s 1967 album Stand Back!, featuring soulful, yearning harmonica and Kaukonen’s brilliant attack and dynamics.
Kaukonen and Casady may have started playing together more than 50 years ago, even before Jefferson Airplane formed, but Hot Tuna definitely ain’t stale. Play on, play on.
Death Don’t Have No Mercy
River Of Time
Uncle Sam Blues
I Know You Rider
How Long Blues
Sad And Beautiful World
Red River Blues
Ode For Billy Dean
Children Of Zion
Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man
Goodbye To The Blues
If This Is Love
Cryin’ Won’t Help You
If I Should Have Bad Luck
Where Highway 61 Runs
Come Back Baby
Hit Single No. 1
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.