Although there weren't quite as many of what a friend of mine often jokingly refers to as "grey ponytail specials" in attendance, the fact that I was even in the building at a Hot Tuna concert has to be proof that I'm getting old.
Truth be told, it's been forty years since my last Hot Tuna concert. That happened back in 1969 when Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen's then side project opened for their other, more famous band, Jefferson Airplane, at Honolulu's Civic Auditorium in one of their very first live appearances.
As a then wide-eyed thirteen year old fan, I was close enough to the stage to marvel at the exchanges between guitarist Kaukonen and bassist Casady during sets by both bands. What I remember most was how skinny Kaukonen looked, and how I could see Casady squinting his eyebrows underneath his oval shaped hippie glasses.
Forty years and several incarnations of the Jefferson Whatever later, the Airplane have long since retired into the rock history books. But Hot Tuna are still going strong. Kaukonen is no longer the razor thin rock guitar god he was way back when, and with the weight he's since packed on looks closer to a vision of grandpa strummin' a guitar on the porch. As for Casady, well he still does that funny thing with his eyebrows. But man, can these two guys still play.
At Seattle's Moore Theatre this past Tuesday night, they were joined for a tasty acoustic set by mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff, a cat who is no slouch himself. Although they stuck mainly to the acoustic blues standards they are perhaps best known for, with the addition of Mitterhoff there were also touches of bluegrass and folkier elements added to the mix.
Kaukonen sounded as fine as ever, both on the guitar and with his smooth bluesy voice that Airplane fans will remember from songs like the original version of "Plastic Fantastic Lover." His voice has aged particularly well, showing some of the rough-around-the-edges quality that comes with maturity.
Taking on blues chestnuts like "Hesitation Blues," (long a Hot Tuna concert staple), Kaukonen's voice sounded as fine as vintage wine. It even reminded you a little of the old bluesmen he so obviously admires. And while there weren't any of the trademark staccato guitar blasts associated with his best work with the Airplane in this setting, Jorma still got an opportunity to show off his well-worn chops during an encore of his signature instrumental "Embryonic Journey." Kaukonen's playing remains as flawless as ever.
But for many in the audience, Jack Casady was the guy they really came to see. As one of rock's all-time greatest bassists, Casady was an early pioneer of the style of playing that makes the bass sound more like a lead instrument than one that is there purely to provide the bottom end. The way he once made the bass rumble on the live version of "Plastic Fantastic Lover" (as heard on the Airplane's Bless Its Pointed Little Head), is a prime reason many still consider that album to be one of the greatest live rock recordings ever.
So when Casady's bass seemed to be turned way down in the mix during this concert's first few songs, the crowd was swift to react with shouts of "Turn Jack up" and "More Jack!" By the time of a great version of the Airplane's "Good Shepherd," however, that problem was suitably rectified as Casady got into an exchange of thundering bass runs that ran side by side with Mitterhoff's stinging mandolin and Kaukonen's tasty guitar passages. Although all three of these guys can play their asses off, Casady was still the star of this show.
The concert was opened by a short, but entertaining acoustic set from veteran singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Onstage, Wainwright proved to be an engaging, and often very humorous performer — particularly during one song where he railed away about his bitch of an ex-wife. Wainwright also covered topics ranging from the recession to why he named his son Rufus as he offered up past material alongside songs from his new Recovery album.