Hot Tuna Sizzles Back at Hallowed Ground in San Francisco

The melodic syncopation ideas are a big part of what made Jefferson Airplane stand out from the pack in the ‘60s and have continued to power Hot Tuna through the decades.
Hot Tuna

There’s a packed house at the fabled Fillmore on this Sunday evening and with good reason. Two of the most influential luminaries in rock history are making a hero’s return and who knows when they might be back again? Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady helped put the San Francisco scene on the map with Jefferson Airplane in the ‘60s, making music so vibrant and original that it helped catalyze the historic “Summer of Love”, the rise of “the Woodstock Nation” and a counterculture revolution that impacted the entire country.

The dynamic duo has also now been rocking the nation with Hot Tuna for over four decades. What started as a bluesy side project wound up becoming their main gig after the Airplane’s untimely dissolution and is now one of the longest running outfits in music. Casady and Kaukonen have been playing music together since 1958, making them an even longer running duo then Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Hot Tuna hasn’t played the Fillmore in some years, though, making this show a hot ticket. Add in the fact that this is to be the only electric performance on the band’s eight-show west coast tour (the others are all acoustic Hot Tuna) and tonight becomes a rare and precious jewel of an event.

Joined by drummer Justin Guip, Hot Tuna comprises one of rock’s greatest power trios. The acoustic shows are cool too, and you can’t fault rock elders like these for wanting to ramp down the volume a bit at this juncture, but the electric shows are where Hot Tuna really sizzles. The band acknowledges the return to the Fillmore by opening with “Been So Long”, a most appropriate way to start the show. It’s a tune with an Airplane kind of vibe, and it’s clear that this will be a special night. The bouncy honky-tonk blues of “Candy Man” follows with the trio in fine form as the audience settles in.

The trio cranks up the blues power on “I Can’t Be Satisfied” with Casady dialing in the classic tone that makes him one of the most recognizable and unique bassists in rock history. Few bassists dare to play a semi-hollow body instrument, but Casady makes it sound so warm and natural. He basically wrote the book on lead bass, along with San Francisco contemporary Phil Lesh, and owns it here as he powers the groove behind some hot riffage from Kaukonen. It’s rather amazing how Casady’s tone is always so crisp and never muddy, but it dates back to his original approach to the instrument.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a musician who just happens to play the bass,” Casady explained to the Albuquerque Journal last year. “I started out playing guitar, but I always enjoyed the voicing and orchestrations within the classical world and jazz world, where you listen to the melody move through the various registers of the orchestra. I love the sound of the cello; I love that range…. When I first picked up a bass seriously around 1960 when I was 16 years old, I just really loved the voicings in that sound. I loved the sound of the bass farther up the neck and the higher registers of that instrument. So it was natural to me to work on the rhythmic aspect of the bass, the more traditional roles of the bass, and try to filter in some melodic ideas and syncopation ideas.”

Those melodic syncopation ideas are a big part of what made Jefferson Airplane stand out from the pack in the ‘60s and have continued to power Hot Tuna through the decades. The trio delivers something of a deep cut with “Trial By Fire”, a showcase for Kaukonen’s melodic fingerpicking which pairs nicely with the shimmering “Watch the North Wind Rise” that follows. The rocking blues of “Come Back Baby” conjures the power of the original Fillmore era, with the trio taking the big groove for an extended ride. Casady puts on a masterclass in making every low note count, while Kaukonen digs deep as he bends notes with abandon. The song features multiple solos, with the captive audience roaring approval for each as the Fillmore’s timeless circuit of musical ascension is activated once again.

“Needless to say, it’s a pleasure and an honor for us to be back here in San Francisco playing for you guys in this hallowed ground here at the Fillmore,” Kaukonen acknowledges, noting the band will play one more song before taking a set break. Hot Tuna rides this energy into the smoking “Bow Legged Woman, Knock Kneed Man” to close the set with another swaggering blast of blues-rock power. The entire first set has been a triumph, with the audience mesmerized throughout. There’s an energy here that just doesn’t come out in the acoustic shows and seeing these classic rock wizards do their thing at the Fillmore again in 2017 is a special treat.

“Hesitation Blues” is an early highlight of the second set with Kaukonen delivering some masterful fingerpicking. The vibe goes to a higher level during “I See the Light”, with an infectious mix of Casady’s powerful bass and Kaukonen’s hot blues licks and soulful vocals. Guip nails the dynamic syncopation here as well, part of what makes Casady’s notes pop so clearly. The classic jams keep flowing with “Rock Me Baby”, a blues standard that’s been a staple since the Airplane days. The chord progression is indeed fairly standard, but Kaukonen tears it apart with some of his hottest playing. “I Wish You Would” cranks the rock power vibe back up, another of the hard-edged tunes where Casady and Guip crush a monster groove and Kaukonen shreds melty fire like Gandalf smiting the Balrog in Middle Earth.

The romantic “Sea Child” sparkles with Kaukonen delivering some of his patented melodic riffage. This vibe continues on the dreamily uplifting “Sleep Song”, as the second set flows with a sustained level of excellence. “Good Shepherd” from the Airplane’s 1969 masterpiece Volunteers bends the space-time continuum even further, as the audience is transported back to the Airplane’s peak era. It starts off a bit low-key with Kaukonen opting for an acoustic guitar, but the song’s timeless magic resonates with a special quality here at hallowed ground. Cassidy even takes a delightfully seamless bass solo in the middle, blending every note into the song. He and Kaukonen then meet at center stage and stand face to face as they move through the bridge’s melodic ascension, much like the narrator in the song speaking of a path to heaven.

Kaukonen moves back to his electric to rock out at his best on “Hit Single #1” and “Funky #7” (both from the band’s classic 1975 LP America’s Choice, a pair of high energy rockers that cap the set with a resounding flourish. Casady’s booming bass seems like it might shake the Fillmore’s foundations on the latter, while Kaukonen tears it up with a climactic attack. It seems like the encore can only be the majestic “Water Song” and so it is as the trio gels on the gorgeous instrumental to cap the show in crowd-pleasing style.

It’s only a shame that Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner passed on just over a year ago, preventing the band from potentially re-uniting to rock for the resistance in these dark political times of 2017. The bold sentiments for revolution against government oppression that the band expressed in response to the Nixon regime on Volunteers in 1969 have rarely been matched since. That ship appears to have sailed a number of years ago though due to internal differences, with Grace Slick retiring and Kantner leading his revamped Jefferson Starship on a flight path that rarely crossed with his old bandmates.

Casady and Kaukonen did, however, get together with current Jefferson Starship vocalist and rock goddess Cathy Richardson for a special Grammy performance in April 2016, in honor of Jefferson Airplane’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The band’s historic achievements continue to shine practically any time a rock ‘n’ roll band takes the stage at the Fillmore, for there’s no other venue in the nation with the rock history that lives inside these hallowed walls. And if a rock for resistance movement can rise again in the current era, its roots will trace back in part to the trailblazing efforts of Jefferson Airplane.