Hot Tuna is a rare example of a band that has grown into their music over the years. Many bands struggle with age and how to perform rebellious, high energy songs that seem at odds with their years, but Hot Tuna have reversed this scenario. When they were young hippies in San Francisco, they were playing old rags and blues songs that many people probably had a hard time hearing as authentic. But now, with Jack Casady at 72 years old and Jorma Kaukonen at 75, they seem to be the definition of authentic when playing these same songs.
On Friday, Hot Tuna returned to the At The Tabernacle music series in the historic Mt. Tabor community in Parsippany. The tabernacle, a 130-year-old round, wooden hall with tremendously good acoustics, has become a favorite for the band, and is much smaller than places they regularly play in the New York area.
Hot Tuna began the night as they began their career, playing their acoustic material for a full set. Kaukonen — like Casady, originally famous as a member of Jefferson Airplane — was talkative throughout the evening, both joking with his bandmates and the crowd. Early in the set, he noted that his daughter was travelling with him, but instead of seeing her “old man” perform, she was in the city watching “Cats.”
“She told me, ‘It’s not my kind of music, Dad, but you’re very good at it,’ ” Kaukonen said.
Highlights of the first set were “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” an extended “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” and the always great “San Francisco Bay Blues.” Perhaps one of Hot Tuna’s greatest contributions is just bringing these fantastic old songs out of the dark and making people aware of their existence, though I would guess many people think they were penned by the band.
What was most striking in this set was something of a surprise to me. I have always thought of Kaukonen as the focal point of Hot Tuna. He’s a great finger style guitarist and the only vocalist, and a really engrossing one at that, with a unique voice that I associate as one of the prominent sounds of my teenage years. His partner in the band plays bass. I thought it was no contest who I’d be paying attention to at the show.
But, it must be said that Casady is an absolute force, and really the defining sound of Hot Tuna. I had never even considered this as a possibility. I’m a guitar player and I truly love Jorma, but without Casady, you have traditional music played fairly traditionally. With him, the traditional music becomes what we know as Hot Tuna’s music — a loopy, somewhat psychedelic and stumbling drunk approach that is uniquely their own. I left there feeling that Casady is probably the most important and impressive musician from the ’60s San Francisco scene left playing today. To hear him is to hear the freedom and exploration that defined the music of that time. His numerous bass solos throughout the night were each a highlight. This is saying something, as just one bass solo would normally be enough to have me looking at my watch and thinking about what to eat after the show.
The second set was the electric version of Hot Tuna. Gone were the acoustic instruments, and in were the Marshall stacks and drums and all else needed to present this alter-ego version of the band. For me, electric Hot Tuna is less compelling than acoustic Hot Tuna. In this incarnation, the music tends to lean towards simple rock riffs that sound a little tired 40 years after they were in vogue.
Still, they played some great songs and played them well. Songs like “Hesitation Blues” and “99 Year Blues” were given a full band treatment instead of their usual acoustic presentation, and hard rock material like “I Wish You Would” and “Funky #7” was fun to see. The second set also included the night’s only visit into Jefferson Airplane’s catalog, with a performance of “Good Shepherd” from the Volunteers album.
It was a pleasure seeing such a favorite band of mine in such an intimate and special venue. Not only should you catch Hot Tuna if you have the chance, but also just see any show at the At The Tabernacle concert series. In either situation, you won’t be disappointed.