Hot Tuna | 01.09.04 | Fox Theatre | Boulder, CO

Hot Tuna rolled into Boulder-town marking the front end of a lengthy national tour that sees them finishing up in March on the island of Maui and then reconstituting for Merlefest in early May.

Hot Tuna is famous for containing two of the core architects of the San Francisco psychedelic sound and for creating a unique brand of incredibly genuine music by fusing their laid-back, jam-friendly West Coast style with the authentic blues of the Rev. Gary Davis and Lighting Hopkins.

It wasn't always this way, as the late 60s saw Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen exploring the electrified heavy metal music expounded by 70s philosophers Deep Purple, Mountain, and Led Zeppelin. With the advent of the 80s, Hot Tuna did a 180 by returning to their coffee-shop roots, a move perfectly displayed on their first eponymous album, Hot Tuna. Occasional electric forays have popped up over the years, including a Jefferson Airplane reunion in 1989 and a stint by Jorma in Phil and Friends, but at this point they have settled on this acoustic duo format.

The show started around 9:15 pm with a nice 45 minute set featuring West Coast veterans Box Set as the opening act. This acoustic duo hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area consists of Jim Brunberg and Jeff Pehrson. If you live anywhere between Chico and San Jose, chances are you've seen them either as a duo or a full band sometime over the last ten years.

As a Bay Area native only three years removed, I swear I could feel the summer fog rolling over Sutro Tower and down on me as Box Set treated this Rocky Mountain crowd to their well-crafted songs and well-rehearsed harmonies. After a short 20 minute set as a duo, the crowd was truly won over when Jack joined the boys for the remainder of the set on electric bass. The crowd applauded as if the holy trinity itself had been completed with his appearance.

Jack's trademark tone and technique fleshed out the duo's sound, creating a fully realized background for Box Set's harmonies and tales of longing. While many may have thought this union contrived or off-the-cuff, it is worth noting that not only did both Jim and Jeff appear on Jack's first-ever solo album from 2003, called Dream Factory, but they also contributed songwriting credits on no less than five of the 11 songs. If that doesn't impress you, then perhaps the company they keep on this album will: Ivan Neville, Paul Barrere (Little Feat), Jorma, Matt Abts (Gov't Mule), Fee Waybill (Tubes), Warren Haynes, and others.

After a half-hour break, our music professors for the evening took the stage accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff. I thought his addition to this tour was an inspired choice by Jack and Jorma, as tonight he added life and an air of authenticity to their mix of new songs, instrumentals, and old favorites. Tonight's set had a decidedly strong folk leaning that found Barry often switching between banjo, mandolin, and an ancient looking four string guitar that I have never seen before.

As I stood listening to finger-picking perfection, my mind drifted to the countryside of southern Ohio, where Jorma runs his guitar camp, The Fur Peace Ranch. I imagined the near-capacity crowd at the Fox Theatre as his students, listening in rapt silence, able to repeat any riff or run on command. The song selection also seemed to imply a desire to teach the crowd the breadth of the various forms of American roots music, in addition to just straight blues. A song like "Bread Line Blues," featuring Barry on the banjo, seemed to be a rare gem unearthed from the depths of Tin Pan Alley circa 1929, and Jorma even invoked the spirit of little known New Orleans guitar legend Snooks Eaglin by playing one of his early blues-groove tunes. The smorgasbord of musical styles was stretched even further when they ended the night's proceedings with a bluegrass/polka number that could have been written by Lawrence Welk himself.

Of course both Hot Tuna and myself would be remiss if we both didn't include some easy multiple choice selections in the guise of old chestnuts, such as "I Am the Light of this World," "I'll be Alright Someday," "Death Don't Have No Mercy," "Hesitation Blues," and "Good Shepherd," which had an extended section featuring leads from all three band mates.

At times this 100-plus-minute lecture seemed to drag, especially with new selections such as the instrumental tune "Living in the Moment," but this did not detract from the sense of satisfaction and pride we were instilled with upon completion of this upper-division music appreciation course. Hot Tuna's lesson plan achieved its mission as a welcomed reaffirmation of plain, simple American musical values.

Words and Images by: Tony Stack
JamBase | Colorado
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[Published on: 1/16/04]

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