Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady formed “Hot Tuna” in 1969 when they were members of the most famous psychedelic hippie band to come out of the Haight Ashbury counter culture flower power movement, “Jefferson Airplane.” The “Airplane,” as they were referred to, became front page tabloid news with top 40 radio hits, when singer Grace Slick and guitarist Paul Kantner had a baby that they named “God.” When things got too crazy, Jorma and Jack would jam together to relieve stress and do what they moved from Washington DC to San Francisco to do, play music. “Hot Tuna” performed “Uncle Sam Blues” at “Woodstock” as part of the “Airplane’s” set with Kaukonen singing lead and playing some great blues rock with Casady in tandem.
After “Jefferson Airplane” crashed and burned in the early 1970s, “Hot Tuna” became a full time band, with a rotating membership, around the core duo of Casady and Kaukonen. Over the next three decades other than a couple of reunion’s and being inducted into the “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “Jefferson Airplane” was defunct. Out of the wreckage “Jefferson Starship” and later “Starship” emerged as a San Francisco pop band. Casady participated in the new configurations, but Kaukonen demurred and began a guitar camp in Southern Ohio, called the “Fur Peace Ranch,” as well as recording nearly a dozen solo albums and collaborations. At the same time “Hot Tuna” continued to tour whenever Casady was free.
The first time that I saw “Hot Tuna” live was on December 31, 1995 when I drove 3 hours in an ice storm to get there. My then 21 year old son Michael came with me and the band was an electric quintet that played the gamut of “Airplane” and “Hot Tuna” fare. The highlight was when Jorma traded his Chet Atkins electric acoustic guitar for his electric Gibson Firebird V and dove into the “Airplane’s” “Embryonic Journey” from their 1967’s debut album, Surrealistic Pillow.
Tonight they were playing to a sold out crowd at “Revolution Hall,” in Portland, Oregon. Coincidentally “Revolution” was one of the songs that the “Airplane” performed at “Woodstock” and also appeared on 1969’s Volunteers album. It was a hot night the last day of August 49 years later, but revolution was still a popular subject as people filed into the air conditioned venue. There was no opening act, so “Hot Tuna” took the stage promptly at 8:00 PM, as a three man group with Jorma, Jack and drummer Justin Guip. They began slow with acoustic blues, like “Winnin’ Boy Blues” by Jelly Roll Morton and Rev. Gary Davis’s “Hesitation Blues,” from their 1970 self titled debut album.
About five songs into the set San Francisco guitar icon, Steve Kimock took the stage after Jorma called him out, turning the band into a quartet with two lead guitars. At that point the show amped up a few notches as Jorma picked up his Gibson Firebird V as he and Kimock, with his Gibson acoustic electric began “Sea Child” from 1972’s third release, Burgers. The closing song of the first set was Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues,” from 1975’s America’s Choice. Kimock was using a custom made electric guitar by New York City’s “Guitar Lab” as he and Jorma faced each other and wailed on their axes as Casady danced around the stage thumping on his bass with Guip ravaging his drum kit.
“Well got up this morning, feeling ’round for my shoes
Know about that, I got the walkin’ blues”
After a 20 minute break the trio returned and did another semi acoustic set comprised of traditional blues including “Hesitation Blues, before Kimock returned to churn out 45 minutes of hard hitting blues that rocked the house. B. B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” was a full blown psychedelic romp that gave both Kaukonen and Kimock ample opportunity to expand the horizons of guitar virtuosity between verses.
“Rock me baby, rock me all night long
Rock me baby, honey rock me all night long”
One of the most entertaining members of “Hot Tuna” visually is Jack Casady, who is a real character, when it comes to stage presence. One time when I saw “Jefferson Starship” perform about twenty some years ago, he lurched on stage dragging one leg behind him and was hunched over like a character from a 1930’s horror film, until he picked up his bass guitar and straightened right up.
“Bow Legged Woman, Knock Kneed Man” by Bobby Rush closed the set, as Jack began to boogie on the bass, by rhythmically thumping out vibrations while moon walking across the stage as Jorma looked on and chuckled. Justin’s drum kit began to emit a staccato rhythm of explosive drum hits for a minute, until Jorma and Steve joined in on guitar once again stretching the limits of their sonic exploration between verses.
“Cause you and me baby, go hand in hand
You the bow legged woman, and I’m the knock kneed man”
The intensity of the guitars increased as they jammed together bringing the audience to its feet as they concluded their set and then came out for a short encore before Jorma told the crowd goodnight and thanked them for coming. The show was over by 10:30 PM.
Review by Bob Gersztyn