Saturday, December 13, 2014

Hot Tuna at the Beacon Theatre

Left to right: Marty Balin, Jack Cassady,
Justin Quip, Jorma Kaukonen
Jefferson Airplane took a break from touring in 1969 while singer Grace Slick recovered from throat node surgery that had left her unable to perform. The remaining members of the band formed a spin-off group, Hot Tuna. Jefferson Airplane split in 1972, but Hot Tuna, led by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassady, lived on. Hot Tuna tours annually and always performs a late fall concert at New York's Beacon Theatre. In 2010, the band celebrated Kaukonen's 70th birthday (which falls on December 20) with guest musicians Warren Haynes, Bob Weir, John Hammond, and Chris Smither. The 2014 concert was billed as Cassady's 70th birthday bash, a real stretch as his birthday was on April 13. Former Airplane vocalist Marty Balin, who has been touring the small club circuit with his own band, was named on the marquee bill.

The line-up of Hot Tuna always has been fluid. Tonight it included the reunion of Kaukonen, Cassady and Balin, along with several frequent collaborators, mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff, vocalist Teresa Williams, her husband, fiddler/guitarist Larry Campbell, guitarist G.E. Smith, and drummer Justin Guip. The evening started with Cassady on stage alone, improvising skillfully on the bass. Kaukonen came on stage with an acoustic guitar and the duo segued into "Hesitation Blues." Mitterhoff, Campbell, Smith, and Guip joined for the second song, the folk-rocking "I See the Light." Williams joined and lent a gospel bent with the third song, "Children of Zion." Balin came on stage and started an Airplane revival, leading on "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover." Williams returned to gospel with "Wade in the Water" before leading the Airplane's "Somebody to Love." After intermission, Balin came out with his two musicians, guitarist Chuck Morrongiello and bassist Lloyd Goldstein, for three low-key songs, then they were joined by the rest of the ensemble for a tribute song to the deceased Hot Tuna violinist "Papa" John Creach. Williams then gave her own vocal twist to the Airplane's "White Rabbit." The music stopped when what looked like Cassady's signature bass guitar was wheeled out. It was a birthday cake, however. Casady blew out the candles and then told the audience, "I want to see everybody back here in 10 years for my 80th birthday." Appropriately, Williams then sang the Grateful Dead's "Sugaree." Mitterhoff, Campbell and Smith sang lead on a few other songs as well. The concert ended four hours after it began with two encores, Balin leading a rocking version of the Airplane's "Volunteers" and everyone singing on "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning." The 27-song concert was packed with delightful surprises, so it was not a traditional Hot Tuna concert, but more like Jorma & Jack with friends. For the longtime fans in attendance, it was a joyous and unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime event.

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