Photos & Review: Hot Tuna & Friends Celebrate Jorma Kaukonen & Jefferson Airplane

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Images By: Rob Chapman

:: Hot Tuna & Friends Celebrate Jorma Kaukonen’s 75th Birthday & Jefferson Airplane :: 11.21.15 :: Beacon Theatre :: NYC, NY ::

Read Chad’s thoughts after the gallery.

I asked Jorma Kaukonen in a recent interview if these tunes that he’s been playing for decades – “Good Shepherd,” “Hesitation Blues,” you know the ones we mean – still reveal new things to him.

He said as much, but what’s more important is that he still plays as much. Watching and hearing Kaukonen, approaching 75 and still one of the most formidable axemen ever to pick up a guitar, delve into one of these chestnuts can still feel like the first time, even if, and especially for a seasoned fan of his music, it’s probably the hundredth.

That’s the curious magic of Kaukonen, of the half-century-long brotherhood with the equally legendary Jack Casady on bass, and of Hot Tuna, the band they created in the wake of Jefferson Airplane that didn’t get the Airplane’s renown, but did endure – and did get the very best of the Kaukonen-Casady partnership.

Watching him (and them) play can stop time. It feels so unhurried – so thorough, so worked-over when, at their age, they could be coasting on nostalgia like so many of their musical peers. The two can go deep into a jam of a song whose every nook and cranny feels familiar and lived in, and still be transporting, as if the folk-blues that defines Hot Tuna is an elixir whose potency has never dulled.

I thought about that a lot during the second night of two superb Hot Tuna shows at the Beacon Theater – an annual rite at this time of year, and made that much more special with Kaukonen’s 75th birthday coming up in a few weeks. It was a powerhouse of a show, and only minimally because the second set was handed over to a reprise of Jorma and Jack’s Jefferson Airplane tribute set from this year’s Lockn’ festival. That was the dessert: fun and tasty. The meat was in the first set, which was Jorma and Jack tear-assing through an hour and a half of red-blooded Tuna, ace drummer Justin Guip the only other player aboard.

So often did they wow the crowd — did they just absolutely own the room’s energy — that by itself the first set would have been enough for an aces evening. And what’s equally clear is how much fun they’re still having; Casady hamming it up during the rippling bass intro of “Bow Legged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man,” Kaukonen entering the improvisational portion of that same song with a solo that began as an economical build of carefully chosen notes and then became incendiary, scorched-earth notes in every progression. (They inspire peers and acolytes to play like that, too. Later in the second set, when Larry Campbell took the centerpiece solo in “Good Shepherd,” he played it what felt like Jorma-style: un-flashy, but not shy, aggressive without being grandstanding, and building, building, building, with just the right amount of time spent.)

I’m not mentioning the Airplane set enough. It was fun, sure; as in Lockn’ came a version of Hot Tuna expanded by five additional players, and a balanced workload of vocals among Jeff Pehrson, Rachael Price and the luminous Teresa Williams, who was the rougher-edged yin to Price’s more gossamer yang when it came to the Grace Slick material. Campbell and the always-welcome GE Smith colored around Kaukonen and Casady, cranking up when the occasion demanded, fleshing out as needed.

But I’ll hand you back “Somebody to Love,” or “Plastic Fantastic Lover” or “Eskimo Blue Day” or any of the other Airplane gems for one more deep-reaching “Funky #7,” or “99 Year Blues,” or “Bowlegged Woman” with just Kaukonen, Casady and Guip. Whatever works between Jorma and Jack, it’s been working forever, and it ages like scotch.

Jorma looked suitably cheered when, during the end of the first set, an airplane- shaped cake frosted in psychedelic colors emerged and the whole house sang and raised a glass to his health. As “Happy Birthday” subsided, he riffed the “and ma-ny more” part on his own guitar, as if a promise. May we all be here again for Jorma’s 80th, and longer still.

Videos (Captured by Scott Gibson)

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[Bowlegged Woman Knock Kneed Man, Funky #7, Happy Birthday, Hit Single #1, 3/5 Of A Mile, Greasy Heart, Good Shepherd, White Rabbit, Law Man, Plastic Fantastic Lover, Somebody To Love, Eskimo Blue Day, Feel So Good, Volunteers]

Setlist

Set One: True Religion, Ain’t In No Hurry, Hesitation Blues, Ode for Billy Dean, I Can’t Be Satisfied, In the Kingdom, Watch the North Wind Rise, Bowlegged Woman Knock Kneed Man, 99 Year Blues, Rock Me Baby, Funky #7, Happy Birthday (with cake presentation), Hit Single #1

Set Two: 3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds, Greasy Heart, Good Shepherd, White Rabbit, Law Man, Plastic Fantastic Lover, Somebody to Love, Eskimo Blue Day, Come Back Baby, Feel So Good, Volunteers

Encore: Sugaree

Set One Performers

  • Jorma Kaukonen – guitar and vocals
  • Jack Casady – bass
  • Justin Guip – drums

Set Two Performers

  • Jorma Kaukonen – guitar and vocals
  • Jack Casady – bass
  • Justin Guip – drums
  • Rachael Price – vocals
  • Teresa Williams – vocals
  • Jeff Pehrson – vocals
  • Larry Campbell – guitar, mandolin, violin, vocals
  • G.E. Smith – guitar