The ageless band with the odd moniker Hot Tuna played the Carolina Theatre this evening to a sell-out crowd that was eager to hear the hard-rockin' blues that is the group's trademark. Dividing the evening into two sets, the band played an acoustic set first, then rocked the house with an electric set after a brief intermission.
Hot Tuna is the band that is the scion of another group, Jefferson Airplane. This iconic sixties group was co-founded by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, along with Marty Balin. Kaukonen asked his high school bandmate, bass player Jack Casady, to join the group. The five-person band made history with their distinctive sound, but the group splintered in the seventies and finally disbanded. Kaukonen and Casady started Hot Tuna with their first album in 1971. That album featured an extended track, "Come Back, Baby," which figured prominently in tonight's concert.
The band in its current configuration has five members. In addition to Kaukonen and Casady, the group consists of Barry Mitterhoff on tenor guitar and mandolin, G. E. Smith on electric guitar, and Scooter Warner on a huge drum set. Joining the group for this concert was a local boy made good, Jim Lauderdale, and Chicago Blues icon Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and vocals. In various configurations these folks brought down the house with hard-driving and rhythmic blues.
For his part, Lauderdale was happy to be back in Durham, where he grew up and attended Carolina Friends School. He is a two-time Grammy award winner and is host of the annual Americana Awards. The singer-songwriter added several of his own compositions to the evening's festivities.
Charlie Musselwhite has been called the "world's greatest living blues harmonica player." He made sure to add his own brand of blues to the high-flying sound created by the rest of the group. When all seven members were on stage and playing, there were some very busy hands and some amazing guitar work to be had.
Hot Tuna has just recently returned to the studio for their first new recording in 23 years. The as-yet-unreleased album features a beautiful ballad that the band performed tonight, titled "Second Chance." The change-of-pace ballad was followed by a rollicking tune with a walking bass solo titled "Hammer." This was Casady's time to shine, and he did not disappoint.
For the first set, the band members sat and played acoustically, starting out with their trademark title, "Hesitation Blues." For the second set the band was on its feet and rocking. With all seven members onstage, there were four guitars playing, including Mitterhoff's tenor guitar, Lauderdale's amplified acoustic guitar, and the electric guitars of Kaukonen and Smith. This made for a rich and layered sound, augmenting Kaukonen's distinctive vocals and Musselwhite's dynamic harmonica.
The band brought the audience to its feet with the final song, from their first album, "Come Back Baby." This extended cut gave everyone a chance to solo, including Warner on drums and Casady with another clever run of deep bass immediately following. The tune had the audience clapping and dancing, and when the band was done, the audience refused to let the group go until they played an encore.
When, during the 1970's, the Jefferson Airplane was beginning to splinter, Kaukonen wrote a blues song called "Third Week in the Chelsea." In it he wrote, "But all I know is what I feel whenever I'm not playing, and emptiness ain't where it's at and neither's feeling pain." Hot Tuna was Kaukonen's way of continuing to play. And they've been playing ever since 1971, a total of forty years together. The band shows no signs of slowing down, and that's good news to lovers of the blues.