Hot Tuna brings its crazy trip to Yardley Hall
by BILL BROWNLEESpecial, kansascity.com
March 6th 2011 10:15 PM Barry Berenson
In 1969, a year in which Janis Joplin titled an album “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama,” Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen founded a new outlet for their distinct brand of blues.
The duo, members of the popular rock band Jefferson Airplane, named their new psychedelia-tinged project Hot Tuna. Over forty years later, its long, strange trip brought Hot Tuna to Yardley Hall on Saturday.
Hot Tuna, along with a few notable friends, demonstrated its impressive vitality and ongoing relevance at the show, divided into dramatically different acoustic and electric sets.
While the pair’s initial recordings were longer on enthusiasm than authenticity, Casady and Kaukonen have aged into the roles of believable blues men.
“Hesitation Blues,” one of Hot Tuna’s signature songs, was entirely convincing. Casady, an imaginative bassist, continues to find fresh ways to express himself on the blues standard.
The tasteful mandolin work of Barry Mitterhoff added to the set’s front porch-style charm. By the fifth song, an exceedingly laid back version of Merle Haggard’s “More Than My Old Guitar,” the mellow approach became almost too relaxed. Not even when joined by blues giant Charlie Musselwhite and renowned guitar slinger G.E. Smith during Leroy Carr’s “How Long, How Long Blues,” did the atmosphere become sufficiently charged.
Tedium never set in, but drowsy moments abounded. Sales of coffee were brisk at intermission. Fans concerned about nodding off during the concert’s second half needn’t have worried.
“This is the sensitive part of the show,” Kaukonen kidded as the second set opened with a thunderous reading of “I Wish You Would.”
Along with the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna’s long-winded guitar solos and extended improvisations during the 1970s influenced generations of jam bands. Smith’s slide guitar on “Children of Zion” showed why the former Hall & Oates guitarist and one-time Saturday Night Live bandleader remains in high demand. Smith and Musselwhite are renowned for their instrumental prowess rather than for their singing. Kaukonen’s voice has never been much more than an amiable mumble. The absence of Jim Lauderdale, who dropped off the tour to be with his ailing mother, meant that the night was without a great vocalist.
Even so, Musselwhite’s astounding harmonica work made the evening memorable. Just as his “Sad and Beautiful World” provided the most charming segment of the acoustic set, the hard-won soulfulness Musselwhite displayed on three consecutive songs during the electric set dazzled. Devastatingly lonesome, Musselwhite’s haunting performance on “Christo Redemptor” was Saturday’s emotional pinnacle. Blues harmonica simply doesn’t get any finer.
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