"A true professional gives his very best‚" Jack Casady declared during one of many breaks in Hot Tuna's first set. "A fresh guitar for every song!"
His voice was as grave as it was mocking‚ and it made Jorma Kaukonen laugh‚ a not-at-all-rare occurrence. "If our set gets too slick‚" he told the almost-sold-out Hart Theatre‚ "just let us know."
"Slick" would not be a good description of Hot Tuna's annual holiday visit to the Capital Region‚ but nobody was complaining - that is‚ unless you count the vociferousness of the requests and shout-outs the boomer-age audience threw at the band all night long. "Ahh‚ the Northeast‚" Casady cracked during one verbal barrage. "There's no place like it."
"I think 'Hot F-in Tuna' raised the show to an 'R‚'" second guitarist mandolin whiz Barry Mitterhoff casually put in. (NOTE: The audience member he was referring to did not use the word "F-in.")
None of this was unexpected. Hot Tuna has a fan base that goes back to the band's early days as a side project of Jefferson Airplane; love for the band was being proclaimed from the moment Casady‚ Kaukonen‚ Mitterhoff and drummer Erik Diaz walked onstage. "Patience‚ fool‚" Kaukonen said good-naturedly to one pre-set comment. "It's a two-set night."
It was a night that started at the beginning‚ with a loping electric-acoustic rendering of "True Religion." Mittehoff - who played with Tony Trischka before he joined up with (in his words) "the Odd Couple of the psychedelic era" - gave the piece a bluegrass sheen with some divine mandolin work. His mandolin may have gotten him hired‚ but Mitterhoff is also a major player on guitar. This not only adds to the quality of the band's overall performance‚ but Mitterhoff's pure tone offered good contrast to the filthy fuzz that typifies Jorma's attack.
For the first few numbers‚ Kaukonen was happy to leave the lead duties to Mitterhoff‚ preferring to stand back and play with Casady. It wasn't until the band pulled out the Yardbirds' "I Wish You Would" that he really let fly on his trademark red Stratocaster. Kaukonen's voice isn't as strong as it was; on most songs‚ he sounded more like Jerry Garcia in his later days. That isn't a complaint per se‚ and Jorma would probably consider it a compliment: Hot Tuna's relationship with Garcia goes back to when they were all playing folk music in San Francisco‚ before the Dead or the Airplane even existed. To make the connection complete‚ Jorma did a letter-perfect version of "Operator‚" Pigpen's hard-edged love song from American Beauty.
Casady acceded to popular demand and played three solid bass solos during a relatively uneven second set. By and large‚ though‚ he was totally happy with bopping around and across the stage‚ providing steel-strong foundation for his musical partner of almost fifty years. Seeing Casady and Kaukonen play face-to-face as they rolled through classics like "Come Back Baby" and "Bow Legged Woman‚ Knock-Kneed Man‚" you couldn't help but marvel at how many times they've taken that smiling stance - at the Fillmore‚ at Woodstock‚ at Altamont‚ and eleven years ago at the first Further Fest‚ where they opened the show with "Death Don't Have No Mercy."
Again‚ this show had its uneven moments‚ and the last few songs plodded more than they rocked. (The end of the first set was also marred by Mitterhoff's longwinded infomercial for Hot Tuna merchandise‚ both in the lobby and on their Web site.) But the real joy of the evening was watching two old friends cook up some hot‚ nasty blues‚ just like they've been doing for parts of five decades. As holiday shows go‚ that beats the hell out of Clay Aiken!