Jorma Kaukonen - guitar, vocals; Jack Casady - bass; Michael Falzarano - guitar, vocals
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 independently 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 highly charged electric context. The 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 released several acclaimed studio albums containing an ever-increasing quantity of original material. Through extensive touring, the group developed one of the most fanatical followings on the planet. By 1977, their performances had become endurance marathons, often stretching to four- and even five-hour concerts that featured extensive improvisation.
Following the 1977 tour, Kaukonen and Casady would pursue separate paths 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. Playing more aggressively and loudly than ever before, Hot Tuna again hit the road, but the band received mixed reactions, with much of the audience pining for older material and a sound that had long since run its course.
They would regroup again three years later, returning to the acoustic-based music that initially established their reputation. In 1987, Paul Kantner came on board, adding additional Airplane-era material to the live repertoire. At a March 1988 gig at The Fillmore, Grace Slick turned up and proved that the chemistry was still in tact, 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 in nearly 14 years. The result was Pair A Dice Found, released in November of 1990. Although the album sold modestly, the 1990 and 1991 tour dates that followed were very well received. Fueled with a wealth of new material and a new sense of purpose, these concerts were a very different affair than the 1983 reunion tour. 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 in both acoustic and electric contexts. Kaukonen and Casady's unique musical chemistry flourished and, to a large degree, was even more clearly in focus.
An excellent example of this rejuvenated Hot Tuna took place on July 21, 1991, when a trio configuration (Kaukonen, Casady and Falzarano) hit the Mid-Summer Festival stage in Telluride, Colorado. 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.
Hot Tuna's set, presented in its entirety here, is an acoustic-based, drummerless performance, but not without electric elements. The trio kick things off with a pair of blues numbers beginning with the traditional "Hesitation Blues," which showcases Kaukonen's intricate finger picking and Casady's melodic bass work. This is followed by Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues." The latter song, first issued on America's Choice in 1975, helped trigger Hot Tuna's heaviest electric phase, though it is not as amped up here as it was back then. These two songs are quite satisfying openers, full of enthusiasm and featuring plenty of instrumental interplay.
Fine readings of Reverend Gary Davis' "I'll Be All Right Someday" and "Let Us Get Together Right Down Here" are next played in succession. These songs have been staples of Kaukonen's stage repertoire since he was playing the San Francisco folk clubs in the early 1960s and they display his mastery of blues finger picking styles. Casady and Falzarano add an accomplished polish that makes these older songs sound fresh and vibrant.
Before venturing into newer material, Hot Tuna treat the audience to two favorites from their first and third albums, respectively, with "Don't You Leave Me Here" and "99 Year Blues." On the latter tune, a highlight of the 1972 album, Burgers, Casady provides a hard swinging bottom end. One can sense that Kaukonen is eager to finish each verse, so that he can cut loose on the finger picking.
Michael Falzarano next takes over lead vocals on a pair of songs then new to the live repertoire. This begins with "Stop Breaking Down," with Kaukonen contributing sizzling electric slide work, followed by Falzarano's own laid-back original "Big Fish." A pair of standout tracks from Kaukonen's 1985 solo album, Too Hot To Handle, are next given the Tuna treatment, beginning with the ominous "Ice Age" and followed by "Too Many Years."
Two interesting covers are served up next with the bluesy "Parchman Farm" and a rockabilly excursion through Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Falzarano again fronts the group on "Just My Way," a song that would later surface on his Memphis Pilgrims album. A driving rocker, this provides another fine vehicle for Kaukonen's electric slide work.
Kaukonen's signature instrumental and his first composition to be featured on an Airplane album, "Embryonic Journey," surfaces next as beautifully as ever and containing Casady's melodically sophisticated interplay. With Falzarano switching to mandolin, the trio next enjoy a romp through Blind Blake's "That'll Never Happen No More" before tackling fine interpretations of Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" and Jesse Fuller's classic "San Francisco Bay Blues." The performance winds to a close with another vintage Hot Tuna chestnut, their cover of Rev. Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy," before Falzarano gets the audience to participate in a hell raising "Praise The Lord and Pass The Snakes" to finish things off in sizzling style.
-Written by Alan Bershaw