I Was There When..Hot Tuna Visited the Music Inn in Lenox, MA in 1975

With “I Was There When…,” veteran music journalist Doug Collette reflects on his experiences in the glory days of live rock music. With each column, he takes us back to a specific concert he attended way back when, spotlighting bands like The Who, Pink Floyd, and The Allman Brothers Band, among many others.

How could you not enjoy this event at this low-profile concert venue hidden in the Berkshires of northern Massachusetts? The brilliant blue cloudless sky radiated a warmth all its own, apart from the bright shining sun, but it was warm, not hot this late July afternoon, perhaps because the the thick circle of deep green trees offered their own aura of cool shady comfort

And Hot Tuna concerts were nothing if not a joyful occasion on their own terms, largely because they were pure musical endeavors, grounded in the deep abiding desire (and longstanding friendship) of guitarist/vocalist/composer Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady to play longer and more often than they could with Jefferson Airplane. No question the success of the latter placed the two in the enviable position of not having to worry about commercial success per se—and, not surprisingly Tuna never experienced any, despite regular recording and constant gigging particularly after the demise of the Airplane.

Originally conceived concurrent with that iconic group between tour dates,  Kaukonen and Casady played clubs usually as an acoustic duo during this down time, as documented on the first eponymous record (available now in an expanded version almost twice its original length). But electricity helped broaden the dynamic range available to Kaukonen and Casady (plus assorted accompanists) and the pair made the most of it in a variety of ways, ultra-high volume just one of them. On this unique midsummer occasion, they were aided and abetted by one of the few additional guitarists they ever invited to accompany them, Greg Douglass.

Given the demographic of the crowd, few in the dense happy audience at the Music Inn may have recognized the name from The Steve Miller Band’s mega-hit album Book of Dreams, but the fact of the matter is Douglass brought a skill to Hot Tuna even its brilliant instrumentalist/founder Kaukonen did not share: an ability to play slide guitar. While Hot Tuna needed no ratification of the authenticity of such blues numbers they regularly played, here in the form  of “Come Back Baby” and “99 Year Blues,” among others, the sound(s) of Douglas  within the quartet certainly expanded the sonic breadth of the group’s musicianship.

Not that Hot Tuna necessarily needed that either, given the premise of their shows based on Kaukonen and Casady’s love for playing. In contrast to the conventions of the times, the band usually played long and extensively improvised sets and this one in Lenox was just shy of three hours).which is no doubt, at least in part, why Bob Steeler inhabited the drum stool for so long with Hot Tuna. But besides his stamina in handling the marathon sets, but even more so  his bouncy but well-grounded style of drumming offered the duo the freedom to depart from the structure of any given song such as “Great Divide: Revisited,”  confident the drummer  would maintain a firm foundation while they did so and be right where they needed him when they returned from their adventure(s).

And adventures they were when Jorma and Jack improvised with the intensity and intricacy they did this Saturday afternoon. They chemistry they discovered within the confines of the Airplane blossomed when they founded Hot Tuna and, without self-indulgence, they honed it through playing clutches of the aforementioned blues, but even more so the idiosyncratic originals of Kaukonen’s like “Serpent of Dreams” and “Sea Child; ” the unusual melodies and rhythm patterns of such material prompted improvisations equally distinctive, all the more so because, at least on this day, Douglas was no more intrusive than Steeler ever was, relishing his supporting position and responsibility within the group, confident in what he added to the mix.

The jeans and t-shirt stage attire the band sported was as superficially nondescript as their overall stage presence, the only obvious physical manifestation of which was the way Casady’s eyebrows bounced along with his fingers on the fretboard of his custom bass. When not singing in his charming nasal tone, Kaukonen concentrated on his guitar playing as if at a recital rather than a tribal gathering, his concentration extended to the compilation of the lenghthy setlist that concluded with a cull from the latter-day repertoire of Jefferson Airplane: “Feel So Good” was a punctuation to the performance here as accurate as it was deliberate, no less liberating for its purpose than the rest of this sunny experience.

 

SETLIST  – Hot Tuna, Music Inn, Lenox, MA 7/26/75

Come Back Baby
Serpent Of Dreams
Sea Child
Another Man Done Gone
I See The Light
Hit Single #1
I Know You Rider
99 Year Blues
Easy Now
Great Divide: Revisited
Police Dog Blues
Funky #7
Invitation

Encore:
Baby What You Want Me To Do
Walkin’ Blues >
I Can Tell >
Feel So Good

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3 Responses

  1. Doug,

    I appreciated your story on one of the hottest Tuna concerts I’ve ever attended. I had invited my best friends from NY, my college roommate and wife who lived right next door on Stockbridge Bowl, and my best friend from NH high school. As you pointed out, the weather was perfect, the band was rockin, and I had just turned to Rick and said, “it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

    Suddenly, the guy in front me who had been passed out for an hour, woke up and started projectile vomiting much of the spiked watermelon he and his friends had consumed. Fortunately, the guy next to him grabbed him by the head and stuck it in the ground. But I felt real sorry for the people in front of him.

    The rest of the show was great.

    Ed

  2. What I remember was they had to quit because Tanglewood was to start up and they pulled the audience in close and turned down the sound and continued plang. Think I have some old photos

  3. Wow, this is bringing back memories I didn’t known I had! The Music Inn had some great shows back in the day (my first was Ike and Tina Turner), but Hot Tuna was (okay, I would have said this then) WICKED GOOD!!!!

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