Long before any mention was made of Hot Tuna’s first (live) album, the atmosphere at Higher Ground September 2nd was very reminiscent of that eponymous work released in 1970. Quiet but focused musicianship among three empathetic highly skilled instrumentalists generated an intimate mood the likes of which is rare at any venue.
The odds are certainly in Tuna’s favor in that respect when they visit Vermont if for no other reason than their long-standing relationship with the Higher Ground’s owners, which as led to regular appearances including the opening night at the current HG location. Perhaps it stands to reason, then, that Jorma Kaukonen’s voice sounded so utterly free and unfettered as his nimble guitar playing early in the set on “Babe I Want You to Know.” But there’s also a sense of rediscovery of the pleasure in that mutual musical understanding he shares with bassist Jack Casady: this tour celebrates “Fifty Years of Friendship and Music” and this night broadened the celebration.
Hot Tuna started as Kaukonen & Casady’s side-project from Jefferson Airplane, but has always included additional musicians who simply like to play for the pleasure of playing. Most recently (and regularly since 2003), that’s been Barry Mitterhoff of the mandolin/banjo/guitar and while he has taken some time to become integrated into the duo’s dynamic, there was certainly no sense of separation between any of the three during tunes like the venerable “Good Shepherd.”
A regularly-shouted request from the lively but respectful audience both seated and standing throughout the big room, this excerpt from late Jefferson Airplane days found Hot Tuna sounding like a unified band as they stretched out at this point. But that was merely the cumulative effect of passage through the usual variety of familiar blues and Kaukonen originals.
Not that anything was predictable: in addition to the many well-known tunes that appeared like “Hesitation Blues,” there was also the topically-relevant “Bread Line Blues” during which Casady, Kaukonen and Mitterhoff would routinely converge and diverge with but a single quick glance amongst them as they kept pace with each other. Then there was the true revelation of Casady’s playing not just in the softly fingered solos that brought vibrancy to familiar progressions such as that of “Come Back Baby,” but also in the way he would anticipate the motion of his partners.
The cheerful repartee of Hot Tuna was as unforced as their instrumental interaction and if it provided a contrast with the ominous likes of “Serpent of Dreams,” that was appropriate too. Traditional material like “I Know You Rider” is the template for Kaukonen’s personalized take(s) on the form and it’s symbolic of how seriously these players take their craft that elevates it to the level of art.
With his own consummate technical skill, in combination with an uncommon intelligence, wit and passion that made reggae tunes and Springsteen songs sound both timeless and contemporary, David Lindley might’ve stolen the show from Hot Tuna, during his opening set or when he sat in on the double encore of “Uncle Sam Blues” and “I’ll Be All Right Some Day.” But in keeping with the tenor of the night and the historical aspect of this Tuna tour, the collaboration was all about finding new meaning in familiar songs and they style in which they’re played, as self-renewing a principle as the band itself.