School’s in session

Three-hour Hot Tuna show features tunes from forgotten American blues masters

Photo By Alan Sheckter

Original Hot Tuna
Sunday, March 10
Paradise Performing Arts Center

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Hot Tuna have come full circle—a couple of times.

Founding members of the Jefferson Airplane and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees, the two have has immersed themselves in a diverse set of musical efforts over the last four decades.

This night in Paradise, Jorma and Jack entertained the crowd with two sets of acoustic blues, roots and spiritual music that was both complex and easy on the ears. Casady’s smooth-as-silk bass passages perfectly complemented Kaukonen’s fingerpicking guitar and storyteller-styled vocals. Hot Tuna’s repertoire is now larger than ever, and the three-hour show consisted of songs they’ve sung for 35 years, along with some new additions.

Kaukonen, who with his wife owns and runs the Fur Peace Ranch for music instruction in the Appalachian hills of southern Ohio, is a renowned guitar master. Once called “the sex symbol of Scandinavia” by the late Bill Graham, the Finnish guitar wizard is a legendary icon. Aside from touring with Tuna and running a ranch, Kaukonen is still a sought-after session player. He recently collaborated on a soon-to-be-released CD for Columbia featuring Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck.

Jorma and Jack hover around 60 years old, and they’ve done most of their touring of late as an acoustic duo, Original Hot Tuna. Bottled water has replaced Heineken on stage, and civility has replaced rock-'n'-roll abandon.

Despite the mature crowd in attendance (aged 25 to 60), tonight we all resembled children sitting at the knees of the elders.

Once on stage, the musical lexicons took us on a tour through the songbook of Americana. The first four songs, tales of poverty, freight trains, drinking and sadness, were all more than 50 years old. Jorma took us to school, singing “Trouble in Mind” (traditional), “Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out” (Jimmy Fox), “Waiting for the A Train” (Jimmy Rodgers) and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” (Rev. Gary Davis). The set carried on with some Kaukonen-penned songs, including instrumentals “Do Not Go Gentle” (written for his late father), “Living in the Moment” and one of Jefferson Airplane’s most enduring numbers, “Embryonic Journey.”

Staying in Airplane mode, Tuna launched into “Good Shepherd,” a song Kaukonen sang with Paul Kantner and Grace Slick 35 years ago. The two veterans traded notes off each other with an unspoken communication that comes with 40 years of camaraderie. Tuna reached back once again, ending the first set with Merle Travis and James Jones’ “Re-enlistment Blues,” followed by the Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train” and the Sheldon Brothers’ “Just Because.”

After a 20-minute break, they were back, picking up with perhaps Jorma’s best-known cover, the traditional “Hesitation Blues.” The blues kept coming with the tongue-in-cheek, anti-war “Uncle Sam Blues,” a song that referred to the Vietnam War when Kaukonen sang it for 400,000 at Woodstock but whose lyrics have renewed meaning today: “You know I’m headed off for war…”

Later, by request, it was back to a song from Hot Tuna’s electric heyday of the ‘70s, “Watch the North Wind Rise.” While the song used to blow crowds away with sheer volume and force, the 2002 version captivated us with decipherable vocals and subtle guitar passages.

Hot Tuna’s second set wrapped up with five more selections from the American-music history books. First was another Jimmy Rodgers song, “Prohibition Done Me Wrong,” followed by another Delmore Brothers tune, “Big River Blues.”

Tuna slowed the pace with "What Are They Doing in Heaven?," a poignant song by Washington Phillips, a founding father of American gospel. Finally, the duo closed this set with Jesse Fuller’s 1950s classic, "San Francisco Bay Blues," and the traditional "Nine Pound Hammer." Tuna encored with another public-domain number, "I Know You Rider," which appeared on the band’s first acoustic album in 1969.