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Hot Tuna Smoke in Return to the Fillmore

Photo: Barry Berenson / Courtesy of the artist

Hot Tuna is power trio rock at its finest as sonic sparks fly in the band's astonishing seventh decade of performing at rock's most sacred venue.

It's one of those extra special Friday nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco, with one of the longest-running bands in popular music back at the scene where they helped forge the psychedelic rock 'n' roll counterculture in the 1960s. Hot Tuna have now been rocking the planet for more than 50 years, and there are very few of their peers who can say the same. This date has therefore been circled on the calendar for some time as the band returns to the Fillmore for the first time in three years, now making it their seventh decade playing at this hallowed hall.

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady came of age rocking the San Francisco scene with the Jefferson Airplane, where they helped create one of the most influential sounds in rock history. But the Airplane's music was about more than just a fresh new sound. The band was also at the epicenter of the San Francisco socio-cultural revolution that swept the nation, leading to the massive Woodstock Festival, where the Airplane turned in one of the weekend's top performances. The Airplane's revolutionary vibe was a genuine force in the pop culture world in the group's peak years from 1966-1970.

Then even as the Airplane was starting to fracture, Jack and Jorma went on to form Hot Tuna and have kept rocking as a force of nature ever since. The band is typically a power trio these days with drummer Justin Guip providing the backbeat to Casady's ever-dynamic low end and Kaukonen's bluesy guitar virtuosity. A "Been So Long" opener sets an appropriate tone for this return to rock's most sacred sonic temple, and the trio is off and running. Jorma starts the show on acoustic guitar, where he puts on a fingerpicking clinic on tunes like "Living Just for You and Me". The trio catches a great groove on the upbeat melodic number with Jorma singing of how "it takes a long time to be free".

Jorma switches over to a gorgeous Gibson Thunderbird, and the trio gets down to rocking out on "Can't Be Satisfied", with the guitarist singing about his worried mind as he rips melty hot licks with one of the sweetest tones in rock. Many of the usual suspects from the local classic rock crowd are here getting their groove on, and an old school Fillmore dance party is in session. The festive vibe continues with "Talking 'Bout You", a swaggering rocker that sounds kind of like a cross between a Chuck Berry tune and a 1974 era song from Aerosmith or KISS. Jorma's melodic fingerpicking is further featured on "Roads and Roads" and "Hesitation Blues", before dipping into some deep electric blues on "Ode to Billy Dean".

Jack takes over the cosmos on "Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man", throwing down a massive groove to ignite the dance floor like the god of thunder that he is. This is power trio rock at its finest, with Jack crushing the monster groove while Jorma rips smoldering riffage as sonic sparks fly. Few bassists dare to play a semi-hollow body instrument, but Jack makes it sound as easy as breathing as he conjures one of the greatest bass tones in rock history throughout the night. "Trial By Fire" keeps things rocking as Jorma lays down sweet melodic riffage over a mid-tempo groove to paint a compelling sonic landscape.

"Sleep Song" is another gem with Jorma's sweet licks and Jack's warm low end coalescing for melodic magic on an infectious groove with a swinging backbeat. The set is really catching fire now as the trio moves into a surging "Walkin' Blues" that explodes with glorious blues power. It's another showcase for Jack's mesmerizing bass power, with Jorma adding some scintillating slide guitar while Justin snaps the dynamic beat back and forth. It's like night and day from the Grateful Dead's version, as Hot Tuna transmogrifies the Robert Johnson blues classic with a Zeppish swagger.

Hot Tuna sets the flux capacitor for 1969 with "Good Shepherd", a key contribution from Jorma on Jefferson Airplane's ultra-classic Volunteers album. The Fillmore's timeless classic rock circuitry is activated here with a psychedelic flashback that dazzles the senses. The song seems to launch with a bit of a shaky liftoff, but Jack and Jorma soon find the sound and soar on a glorious ride through the dawn of the rock 'n' roll counterculture and back again.

"Whatever works between Jorma and Jack, it's been working forever, and it ages like scotch," wrote Jambase.com's Chad Berndtson of the show celebrating Jorma's 75th birthday in 2015, and it's a great analogy. These longtime amigos have been playing together since 1958, and their sound just continues to deepen with a rich sonic flavor that stands out in any era.

The trio brings the show to a rousing conclusion with an electrifying jam on "Funky #7", a Hot Tuna showcase for the sonic alchemy of Jorma's smoking hot riffage and Jack's infectious bass lines. It's been a smashing two-hour set jam-packed with one highlight after another, much to the delight of all the classic rock aficionados on hand.

The majestic "Water Song" makes for a fantastic finish in the encore slot, with Jorma's liquid melody lines oozing over a beautiful groove to close the night with a flourish. It's been like watching Jedi tone scientists at work, and their mastery of the Force only seems to grow stronger as the decades roll by. Blessed, the Fillmore audience has been on this winter evening with vibrational healing to uplift the soul.

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