Hot Tuna
Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Hot Tuna Electrify the Fillmore for the Final Time

Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady continue to age like fine spirits with their masterful skills as pioneering rock tone scientists.

It’s a hot ticket on a Friday night at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and it feels like there’s a groovy time warp in effect. Hot Tuna are playing their last electric shows for the foreseeable future this week with a notable stop at the fabled concert venue here on 1st and 2nd December, where guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady helped forge the psychedelic rock sound that changed the music world forever with Jefferson Airplane and their peers in the 1960s. Amazingly, Kaukonen and Casady are still rocking nearly six decades later, with Hot Tuna becoming one of the longest-running acts in the music business. 

Hot Tuna plan to continue touring as an acoustic entity as they’ve done for many years, but this week represents the last electric shows of their Going Fishing Tour, with just one more stop in Denver following the Fillmore shows. Kaukonen explained the decision in a recent interview with Relix, saying, “I’m going to be 83 years old this year, and I’m fortunate because I’m very healthy, but an electric show just physically beats the piss out of you. At the end of the evening, I don’t want to see people. I still enjoy doing it because any time I get to play music is a great thing. But after spending two and a half hours on stage holding a heavy guitar, this old man’s ready to go to bed.”

Father Time is undefeated, as NBA superstar LeBron James has often observed, yet seminal rockers like Kaukonen and Casady continue to age like fine spirits. Their masterful skills as pioneering tone scientists transcend time and space so that Hot Tuna can still sound as vital as ever, as performances in recent years have shown. Thus, fans are packing the Fillmore to catch the band in action for what has become a truly historic occasion, with the first night lined up as an old-school full house rager, followed by a more intimate gathering on Saturday for a Rex Foundation benefit show.

Formed as a bluesy side project in 1969, Hot Tuna soon became the main band of this dynamic duo after Jefferson Airplane splintered. The fact that they’ve still got the band going all these years later is a testament to their enduring instrumental prowess and excellent catalog of songs. One attendee and longtime fan refers to Casady and Kaukonen as “national heroes of rock’ n’ roll”, and it’s a fitting description. They’ve been rocking the tour trail since the 1960s as one of the most dependable acts in the music business.

Hot Tuna’s heroic efforts to bring the music to the people even continued during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-21, when Kaukonen played a free weekly webcast dubbed “Curing the Quarantine Blues” from his Fur Peace Ranch facility in Ohio. Casady was a recurring visitor, driving in from his home in Los Angeles to morph the webcasts into Hot Tuna performances. At a time when live music was in short supply, Hot Tuna continued to deliver.

They receive a genuine hero’s welcome when they hit the stage and ease into the show with Kaukonen fingerpicking on the easygoing “Hesitation Blues”. Trumpeter Steve Bernstein adds some New Orleans-style flavor with some jazzy fills, enhancing the band’s standard power trio lineup. Casady starts dropping bombs on the dual riffage in “Been So Long”, as the audience takes delight. Few bassists dare to play a semi-hollow body instrument, but Casady has always made it sound so good with his warm tone and punchy riffs. He and drummer Justin Guip have developed a formidable chemistry, as few rhythm sections can deliver as these two can.

Special guest Larry Campbell joins the fun on fiddle, along with his wife Teresa Williams on vocals for “Highway Song”. The song is said to have been out of rotation for many years, making it a special treat here as Williams harmonizes with Kaukonen on the folk blues gem. “There’s a sound in this hall that I just love,” the 79-year-old Casady says, going on to note that the people who come to the Fillmore are part of the vibe, too. 

Kaukonen switches to his Gibson ES-345 for harder-edged rocking, laying down hot fuzzy riffage over a monster bass line on “I Don’t Wanna Go”. Casady is like a rock ‘n’ roll Godzilla here with his thundering bass bombs, while Kaukonen’s wah-wah leads are akin to the monster spitting atomic fire. Bernstein gets into the mix with some freaky trumpet for a stellar psychedelic excursion, as the Hot Tuna are really heating up now. Campbell returns on Telecaster as Casady lays down the monster low end on “Bow Legged Woman, Knock Kneed Man”, one of Hot Tuna’s heaviest jams. 

Watching Kaukonen and Campbell trade hot licks over the massive groove is rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy, with Bernstein adding a wah-wah trumpet solo that sounds like Miles Davis meets Marshall Allen for a cosmic jazz explosion. Campbell stays on for “Sea Child”, a melodic gem that benefits from doubling up on the harmonious lead guitar parts. Kaukonen is back on his Chet Atkins SST for the acoustic-style riffs on “Trial by Fire”, yet Casady still providing some heavy bass. Campbell and Williams return for a rousing take on the traditional “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”, with Williams belting out the blues classic for a big finish.

It’s been a sensational first set, and this audience is fired up and ready for more. The vibes are off the charts because Hot Tuna is electrifying a packed house at the Fillmore for the final time. The second set is a series of highlights, such as Campbell on fiddle to conjure the spirit of late former band member Papa John Creach for a rousing jam on “John’s Other”. The Fillmore’s flux capacitor fluxes in a big way during “Good Shepherd”, Kaukoken’s spotlight song on Jefferson Airplane’s landmark 1969 Volunteers album. The traditional number always seems to have a transcendent effect, as Kaukonen sings of meeting up “over on the other side”. It features a magical vibe here, with Campbell and Bernstein adding to a gloriously extended jam and Williams providing the Grace Slick backing vocals.

The second set surges into rock ‘n’ roll overdrive on the triumphant “Invitation”, a deep cut busted out on this tour for the first time since the 1970s. It’s power trio rock at its finest, with Kaukonen shredding waves of scintillating molten lava over a pulsing groove from Casady and Guip. Hot Tuna has set the Fillmore on fire here, so it’s fitting to follow with the classic “Water Song” to cool things off sublimely with the song’s shimmering chords and translucent riffs. Then it’s back to hot melodic rocking on “Hit Single #1” and a big jam with Campbell on “Funky #7” as the band brings the set home in stellar fashion. Fans soon exit the Fillmore in a pleasant daze, for this has been a show for the ages.

Night 2 – Saturday, 2 December

Twenty-four hours later, it’s a similar yet different scene at the Fillmore. There are plenty of eager fans ready to rock out one more time, yet not quite as many attendees on hand with dinner tables across the dance floor for the Rex Foundation’s annual benefit show. Formed by the Grateful Dead in 1983 as the band’s non-profit charitable organization and named after former roadie and road manager Rex Jackson (who passed on in a tragic motorcycle accident in 1976), the Rex Foundation has granted $9 million to more than 1,300 recipients since 1984. High-end shows like this are a primary source for foundation funding, so it’s a great cause that draws many luminaries from the Bay Area’s rock ‘n’ roll scene.

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams perform an opening set with their band, featuring a “Samson and Delilah” opener and Jorma Kaukonen joining them on the set closer, “Angel of Darkness”. Campbell and Williams are a dynamic duo in their own right, so it’s been great to see them in action as special guests throughout the weekend. 

Hot Tuna’s set list is similar to the night before, though with some tunes moved around and a handful of rotation in the deep cuts. Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More” is added in the first set, a showcase for Kaukonen’s nimble fingerpicking and some guest fiddle from Campbell. At one point, Kaukonen reflects on the Fillmore in the 1960s, noting that it didn’t have the fancy chandeliers back then but that the stairway is the same. “Highway Song” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” benefit from Williams’ vocals again, with the latter classic providing another climactic conclusion with Kaukonen and Campbell tearing it up. Steven Bernstein also continues to add a jazzy flair with his trumpet, a great addition to Hot Tuna in 2023.

The historic vibes are in the air during the set break, and it turns out that the first time Kaukonen and Casady played the Fillmore was a historic occasion, too. Legend has it that Jefferson Airplane played a benefit show for the San Francisco Mime Troupe “for continued artistic freedom in the parks” at the Fillmore on December 10, 1965. There was also another rising local band on the bill for their first gig after changing their name from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead. It was additionally the first rock concert that legendary promoter Bill Graham produced at the Fillmore. It launched a career that transformed the music business with Graham’s savvy yet fan-friendly approach.

An MC makes note of the 1965 show and informs the audience that there are at least three ladies in the house who were also present at that show: Eileen Law (whose daughter Cassidy was fathered by Rex Jackson and was the inspiration for the Grateful Dead song “Cassidy”); Carolyn Garcia (aka “Mountain Girl”, former wife of Jerry Garcia and a key figure in the Dead’s formative stages); and psychedelic pioneer Rhoney Stanley (who worked with and had a son with LSD chemist and Grateful Dead soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley and authored the memoir “Owsley and Me – My LSD Family” in 2013). The complimentary champagne toast was poured for all attendees in honor of Hot Tuna’s “final performance in San Francisco as Electric Hot Tuna” and also seems to honor these three trailblazing ladies of the psychedelic rock counterculture, and rightfully so.

The second set features another stellar jam on “Good Shepherd” that makes the Fillmore seem simply timeless, with Teresa Williams again harmonizing with Kaukonen in mesmerizing fashion. The traditional “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” adds to the old-school vibe, with Kaukonen digging deep into the blues well. A hot jam on “Rock Me Baby” mixes things up as Hot Tuna rock out with a powerful mojo. Jack Casady lays it down like a titan throughout the set, conjuring a feeling of witnessing a mythical endangered species in its natural habitat.

“Funky #7” serves as the set closer again for a big rousing finish. Then there’s a special treat at the very end as Hot Tuna go down the cosmic wormhole one more time for a red pill with a “White Rabbit” encore. It’s at least the year’s second “White Rabbit” at the Fillmore. Margo Price and her band delivered a sensational performance of the classic psychedelic counterculture song in February. But it’s magical to witness two former members of the Airplane performing it here, with Williams dazzling on the lead vocal.

The Fillmore is an extraordinary place because of how it has maintained its timeless rock ‘n’ roll vibe through the ages. From serving as ground zero for the San Francisco rock revolution of the 1960s to the alternative rock scene of the 1990s when Smashing Pumpkins re-opened the venue in 1994, to the modern age where it still serves as a milestone venue for touring artists on the rise. Witnessing Hot Tuna perform their extended milestone shows here this weekend has been one of the venue’s most special occasions of the 21st century.