Guest concert review: Hot Tuna at The State Room
Tribune editor Peter S. Lozancich attended the Hot Tuna show at the State Room on Saturday, Feb. 16, and here is his review:
So in synch was Hot Tuna at the State Room on Saturday night that, at times, the trio of bass, guitar and mandolin melded into one instrument.
The phenomenon shouldn't have been a surprise considering the experience on stage. Jorma Kaukonen, 72, and Jack Casady, 68, founded Hot Tuna in 1969, and have been playing together for 50 years or so; Barry Mitterhoff added his multi-instrumental talents to the band in 2003.
On songs such as “Come Back Baby,” “I Know You Rider,” and “Children of Zion,” from Hot Tuna's latest release, “Steady as She Goes,” Kaukonen would pluck out a series of riffs or chord progressions on his guitar, then Casady would add depth with the bass line and Mitterhoff would jump in on the high end with his mandolin.
Shortly after that, you'd be lost as to where one instrument ended and the other began. Lucky you.
Musical craftsmanship is to be expected at a Hot Tuna show; musical transcendence, though?
Sure, why not?
The music mesmerized perceptions into believing that this trinity of instruments became one (and maybe even holy), but it didn't disorient. Quite the contrary. The music buoyed you in a peaceful appreciation of the harmony. Then the musicians had a little fun, sweeping you high and low out of that comfort zone as they took turns soloing. Such was the case with “Hesitation Blues,” one of the band's signature songs and one of the early high points of Saturday's show, where Casady showed off the decades of practice and Mitterhoff proved he could hold his own with the living legends seated to his right.
On “Winin’ Boy Blues,” the transitions from song to solo and back to song were so fluid it was hard to discern if it was a well-rehearsed routine or if the band was just so tight it could roll with the improvisations of each musician.
But never describe the band as a fine-tuned machine. There was nothing mechanical about this show. The performance was, like the custom teas the band was selling along with CDs and T-shirts in the lobby, organic, as if the music was rising off the separate instruments in a mist and blending in the atmosphere of the auditorium. Intoxicating, but not psychedelic.
The one hint to Kaukonen and Casady's time with Jefferson Airplane — a request from the audience for one of the old hits — triggered a brief “White Rabbit” bass line out of Casady, and a cry from Kaukonen: ”I'm having a flashback.” Someone backstage flipped a rainbow of lights on and off, then the band jumped right into “Let Us Get Together,” one of several songs by the Rev. Gary Davis that the band loves and played Saturday night.
Americana, folk, blues and bluegrass, not pop music, is what interests these musicians. Kaukonen delivers the lyrics in a talking-singing style that doesn't really command your attention. The lyrics are gospel-driven in songs like the Rev. Gary Davis' ”I'm the Light of This World,” humorous, as in “BBQ King” or beautifully reflective, as in ”Second Chances,” another song off “Steady as She Goes.” But it seems as if the lyrics are there just to wrap the music around. The band members put their imprint on the old songs, delighting and surprising the audience with the variations. The music rose above all Saturday night.
Some of the credit goes to the fine acoustics of the State Room, which seemingly allowed every note to ring out clearly. The talents of the band, of course, played a role, too.
"Good Shepherd,” which Kaukonen said was originally called "Blood-Stained Banders," about the nation's home-grown “terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan,” roused the crowd in the sold-out venue and again featured those wandering solos.
During the night, Mitterhoff would go on to show his range, exchanging mandolin for octave mandolin on various songs. He broke out a tenor guitar for “How Long Blues” and an instrumental version of “Candyman” and deployed the ukelele on “Doctor Gonna Fix It.”
The band came out for an encore with more enchantment, delivering the instrumental “Water Song,” and away floated the night.
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