Hot Tuna—not so appealing if listed on a restaurant menu, but when mentioned on a marquee, the crowds do swarm. Starting out as an acoustic spin-off from the Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna soon became a major focus for founding partners Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen. Hot Tuna has been touring and recording steadily for decades; Casady and Kaukonen have been music collaborators and lifelong friends since they played together as teenagers in a band in Washington, D.C. Slightly later, in San Francisco of the middle 1960s, the ongoing musical rapport between Casady and Kaukonen provided the base for the Jefferson Airplane sound. They’ve worked together for decades, and you can barely mention one without thinking of the other. Their motto: “If you don’t know Jorma, you don’t know Jack.”
While Hot Tuna performs in various membership configurations, Acoustic Hot Tuna is made up of the originating duo of bassman Casady and guitarist Kaukonen. Together onstage, they delivered a show heavily dosed with traditional ragtime tunes and blues interspersed with original songs.
But first, the venue… As I pulled into the expansive parking area and caught first sight of the lovely and near-new Paradise Performing Arts Center, my eyes opened wide in amazed delight. I admit I was expecting a well-worn community center or redwood planked Grange Hall, the kind of social hall that is second nature to rural areas, one that also hosts 4-H meetings and pancake breakfasts. But instead, nestled unobtrusively in the hills near the heart of Paradise, the PPAC is a beautifully appointed, low-key architectural feature. The very existence of the place is a tribute to a community who wanted to do things right. After 20 years of community meetings and fundraisers, they have succeeded and have every right to take pride in the community effort.
As the concert-goers filed into the porte cochere for entrance, the adjoining courtyard began to swirl with the spillover crowd, all dressy-ed up for a concert outing in a fancy sit-down place and looking forward to peace, love, and Hot Tuna. Red plaid flannel shirts and down vests were scattered about, mixed in with an occasional cowboy hat, while the crushed red velvet trousers and fringed gold satin shawl set numbered a surprising quantity, as frequent in appearance as the tie-dyed shirt group and the muted-pattern Polartec pullover fashion subset. We all clumped together as a friendly school of trout might and moved forward towards the glass entry doors that displayed a full-color crisp paper American flag, a special-print double-truck pull-out feature courtesy of the local newspaper.
Once inside the entrance, the volunteer ushers were identifiable by their red jackets, while concert security was manned by genial senior representatives of the local VFW, all bedecked in official well-pressed khaki uniforms and jaunty caps decorated with a myriad of shiny brass pins and medals. As the concert attendees filled the lobby, the slight scent of patchouli perfume wafted lightly through the air and there was the occasional subdued tinkle of amber bead bracelets.
Through the lobby and down the aisles into the theatre, having settled into my extremely comfy, well, downright plushy second-row aisle seat, I didn’t have to wait long for Acoustic Hot Tuna to make their appearance. The duo settled into their folding chairs onstage in front of the maroon and navy velvet stage curtains and plugged in their instruments. Throughout the evening, Casady and Kaukonen played like they were friends sitting down for a jam. The audience was warm and kindly towards the entertainers, who seemed accustomed to being adored, and the men onstage responded to the audience in kind. A few songs into the set, between tunes, a woman suddenly shouted out, “Thank you for coming here tonight” and Kaukonen turned straight to the audience and repeated the phrase back to them. In between other tunes, various people called out titles for special requests, and the good-humored Kaukonen would always comment in return. If he said, “That’s a good idea,” Hot Tuna played it straight away; if he pronounced “That one comes later,” the song would appear later in the set. Only once did Kaukonen push away a request, commenting, “We can’t do that one now, we’re into the spiritual segment of the set.” But after a few more songs, they did the next one the guy shouted out as a special request. Late into the show, another woman erupted with, “Thank you for coming to Paradise!” Kaukonen replied they were happy to be in Paradise.
Jack Casady, by way of body language, is the loosest, most relaxed bass player ever seen. Seated in his chair, he appeared not just languid but loose-limbed as he cradled his 4-string electric bass. His deep voice on the bass perfectly complemented the top note guitar parts that characterize Kaukonen’s acoustic playing, and particularly added the punch to the ragtime tunes. Kaukonen provided the vocals and played his ebony-black Guild in his own unique style. His finger picking is predictably sweet, but he mixes that with aggressive and powerful full-chord runs up the neck for each note in the melody. He also uses a rigorous hammer-on technique, playing the notes as he pulls his fingers out of a chord position without touching the strings at all with his picking hand. He has a strong, muscular style of playing.
Their music, mostly drawn from traditional tunes and old standards on the folk and blues circuit, was a pleasure to revisit. Opening with a version of “Easy Rider Blues”, they soon moved into “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. Rev. Gary Davis tunes made appearances in each of Hot Tuna’s two long sets. Davis’s “Hesitation Blues” pleased the graying hippies who recalled Big Brothers’ version, while the Reverend’s moody contemplation on the unfair nature of existence “Death Don’t Show No Mercy” cast a reflective spell on the audience. In between, true country tunes got a good treatment by Hot Tuna beginning with the Delmore Brothers’ “Done Me Wrong”. The duo tried their hand with the Shelton Brothers’ upbeat “Just Because”, a humorous knee-slapper that has been recorded by everyone from polka bands to Elvis Presley. Kaukonen performed a sterling cover of “Big River Blues” after reminding everyone that Doc Watson’s version is called “Deep River Blues”, and in his introduction Kaukonen insisted “but it’s the same song.” A member of the audience asked who wrote the song, and Kaukonen replied in a friendly manner, “I’m not a musicologist, I just play this stuff” and launched into his lead-in.
“The Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers had his tunes redone, but without the yodeling. Hot Tuna provided their own spin to the Rodgers song “Waiting for a Train” as well as his “Prohibition Blues (Prohibition Done Me Wrong)”. Pronounced in distinct syllables as “pro-HIGH-bi-tion”, the story song is a series of prescient early observations that clearly pointed out that the official ban on booze or the partaking of a single beer had the unexpected and unwanted effect of driving people towards worse things, including cocaine and death.
Lightning Hopkins got a nod with his slow plea “Come Back Baby” while the most complex blues guitar breaks occurred during Jelly Roll Morton’s “Don’t You Leave Me Here”. Not all was downcast and mopey with the blues, as Oakland’s own Jesse Fuller was celebrated by performing his treasure, “San Francisco Bay Blues”. The show date happened to be near Fuller’s birthday, so that was a fitting tribute. A few original Kaukonen compositions made their occasional way in, including “Watch the North Wind Rise” and the bizarre “Pass the Snakes”. There were a few songs memorable for a distinct military flair, including the ancient “Uncle Sam’s Blues” with the famous line, “Uncle Sam ain’t no woman / But sure can take your man”. Also, a song recorded first by Merle Travis for the soundtrack of 1954’s From Here To Eternity, one of the old war movies getting a lot of replay on television these days. Slightly rewritten for this show, but still moaning the dirty deals of both civilian and military life in “Re-Enlistment Blues”.
Part way through the second set, Kaukonen had pushed up his sleeves to really get to work, revealing a left forearm covered in swirling tattooed design. He swung into an emotional, splendid rendition of the Washington Phillips spiritual, “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” followed by a touching instrumental, “A Life Well Lived”.
In over two hours of music, there were a lot more songs than that. At the end, the appreciative audience just didn’t want Hot Tuna to ever go home. As Kaukonen has been quoted as philosophizing on many a topic, “If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.” This crowd really liked it.