Jorma Kaukonen - guitar, vocals; Jack Casady - bass; Michael Falzarano - guitar, mandolin; Harvey Sorgen - drums
The seeds of Hot Tuna's sound can be heard as far back as 1966 Jefferson Airplane sets, but within the context of the early Airplane they were often limited to one or two showcase songs a night. During a 1969 hiatus in the Airplane's touring schedule, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady began further exploring their love of traditional acoustic blues and in September performed a series of concerts at the New Orleans House in Berkeley. These sets were recorded and later released as the debut Hot Tuna album. The following month, Hot Tuna began performing as the Airplane's opening act and would continue to do so over the course of the following year. Convinced that Hot Tuna could survive independent of the Airplane, Kaukonen and Casady recruited drummer Sammy Piazza and violinist Papa John Creach and began further developing and touring their music within a new highly charged electric context. The group's second album, also recorded live, proved that the band was capable of inspired improvisation and by 1972, Hot Tuna had become Kaukonen and Casady's primary interest.
Over the course of the next five years, Hot Tuna would develop and release a wealth of original material and through extensive touring, develop one of the most devoted followings on the planet. By 1977, their performances had become endurance marathons, often stretching to four and even five-hour performances that featured extensive improvisation. Kaukonen and Casady would then go their separate ways for six years before rejuvenating Hot Tuna in 1983. Rhythm guitarist Michael Falzarano and drummer Shigemi Komiyama would become the newest recruits, and Hot Tuna would again hit the road performing a new live repertoire, much of it sourced from Kaukonen's solo projects and previously unheard contributions from Falzarano. More aggressive and with a hard metallic edge, Hot Tuna again hit the road, but the band received mixed reactions, with much of the audience pining for an older sound.
They would revamp again three years later, returning to the acoustic based music that initially established their reputation, and in 1987, Paul Kantner came on board, adding additional Airplane era material to the repertoire. At a March 1988 gig at The Fillmore, Grace Slick turned up and proved that the Airplane chemistry was still very much intact, sowing the seeds for a Jefferson Airplane reunion album and tour the following year. Upon completion of this tour, Kaukonen and Casady resumed Hot Tuna, bringing back Falzarano and eventually recruiting Harvey Sorgen to fill the drum seat. Epic Records, which had signed and released the Airplane's reunion album, also signed this new Hot Tuna configuration and by 1990, with Galen Underwood augmenting the group on keyboards, they set about recording the first Hot Tuna album of all new material since 1976. The result was Pair a Dice Found, released in November of 1990. Although the album sold modestly, the tour that followed was very well received. Fueled with a wealth of new material and a new sense of purpose, this tour was a very different affair than the 1983 reunion. Striking a near perfect balance between old and new material, Hot Tuna was again delighting audiences everywhere they went, playing with a tighter precision than ever before and doing it within an electric context. All the elements that made for Kaukonen and Casady's unique musical chemistry were again on full display and to a large degree, more clearly in focus.
An excellent example took place on March 8, 1991, when Hot Tuna began a two-night stand at The Fillmore, before a hometown crowd. John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (also available here at Wolfgang's) opened, priming the audience and raising the bar. Recorded by the Bill Graham Presents crew, this remarkably well-balanced recording allows listeners to clearly hear this era of the band at their best, full of enthusiasm for the material and playing with a tighter precision than ever before.
Following the break after their first set (also available here at Wolfgang's), Hot Tuna takes the stage for their second set of the evening. Although not completely recorded, what was recorded of this set is presented here and focuses on the down-home blues of their acoustic repertoire arranged for this quartet lineup, mixed with several choice selections from Kaukonen and Cassidy's tenure in Jefferson Airplane. They begin with a take on the traditional, "Hesitation Blues." Showcasing Kaukonen's intricate finger picking and Casady's melodic bass work, this is approached much like the version on Hot Tuna's debut album, but with Casady and Sorgen adding the extra punch of a full rhythm section. Relaxed during the verses and picking up momentum for Kaukonen and Casady's guitar/bass interplay flights between, this is classic Hot Tuna adapted to the instrumentation of this quartet lineup. The same can be said for the next several numbers, with a pair of Rev. Gary Davis classics turning up next. Davis looms large in Kaukonen's repertoire and remains one of his primary influences. The two songs represented here, "I'll Be All Right Someday" and "Let Us Get Together Right Down Here" have been staples of Kaukonen's stage repertoire since he was a playing the San Francisco folk clubs in the early 1960s. Both of these songs display a mastery of Davis' style of blues finger picking, but rather than sounding dated, the band adds an accomplished polish that makes these songs fresh and vibrant. A relaxed groove also permeates an enticing performance of Jelly Roll Morton's "Don't You Leave Me Here," with Michael Falzarano adding piano-like mandolin accompaniment, rounding out the vintage blues material that initially launches this set.
The next four numbers explore some of Kaukonen's material from the Jefferson Airplane era and a number from Hot Tuna's mid-1970's album, Hoppkorv. A tight focused performance of "Trial by Fire" is a delight, followed by Kaukonen's distinctive arrangement of the traditional "Good Shepherd," a standout track from the Airplane's Volunteers album. Both of these numbers display plenty of impressive technique, but it is the sophisticated rhythmic bed of Casady and Sorgen and the telepathic interplay between Kaukonen and Casady that make these performances so enjoyable. A fine version of the ballad "Watch the North Wind Rise" is next. Unlike the highly amped up version on Hoppkorv, where it received the power trio treatment, this more acoustic-style arrangement accents the innate beauty of the melody and is all the more compelling for it. This is followed by Kaukonen's signature instrumental and his first composition to be featured on an Airplane album, "Embryonic Journey," as beautiful as ever and quite interesting with a quartet arrangement.
The last complete song recorded is a fine take on Richard Jones' classic slow 8-bar blues, "Trouble in Mind." Covered by countless artists, Kaukonen takes an approach similar to Lightnin' Hopkins, but with the nimble melodic counterpoint of Casady's bass playing adding dynamics and coloring. Perhaps, as a nod to the hometown audience, this segues directly into a jaunty up-tempo romp through Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues," three minutes of which was captured prior to the tape stock running out.