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 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 would release several acclaimed studio albums, containing an ever-increasing quantity of original material and, through extensive touring, develop one of the most fanatical followings on the planet. By 1977, their performances had become endurance marathons, often stretching to four or even five-hour performances 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. More aggressive and extremely loud, 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 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 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 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. Kaukonen and Casady's unique musical chemistry flourished and to a large degree, was more clearly in focus.
An excellent example took place on March 9, 1991, when Hot Tuna wrapped up a two-night stand at The Fillmore before a hometown crowd. John Mayall's Bluesbreakers 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.
Hot Tuna's first set, presented in its entirety here, wastes no time getting down to business, as they kick things off with Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues." Issued on America's Choice in 1975, it was that album and the tour that followed that began the heaviest electric phase of the group. While not as exploratory as it was back then, this is a very satisfying opener, full of enthusiasm and featuring just the right amount of Kaukonen's scorching guitar work. The unique Kaukonen/Casady chemistry is perfectly encapsulated in the next number, "I See The Light," which provides a fine opportunity to admire Kaukonen's finger-picking dexterity applied to electric guitar accompanied by the extraordinarily melodic bass work of Casady. Falzarano next fronts the group on "Just My Way," a song that would surface years later on his Memphis Pilgrims album. A driving rocker, this much earlier reading provides another fine vehicle for Kaukonen and Casady's sophisticated interplay. Returning to America's Choice material, they next serve up "Hit Single #1," a hot boogie-style number. Falzarano's adept rhythm guitar playing frees up Kaukonen to cut loose at every opportunity.
"99 Year Blues," a highlight of the 1972 album, Burgers, is up next. With Casady and Sorgen providing a hard swinging bottom end, this really cooks. One can tell Kaukonen can't wait to finish each verse, so that he can cut loose on the electric finger picking. Kaukonen follows this with the early 1970s Airplane gem, "Third Week In The Chelsea." The most overtly autobiographical song Kaukonen ever wrote, this remains a compelling look at the impending breakup of the Jefferson Airplane as seen through Jorma's eyes. 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."
The next several numbers showcase Falzarano's songwriting contributions as well as a couple of choice covers, beginning with "AK-47," which many considered the best track on the recently released Pair A Dice Found album. Certainly one of the most well received new songs, this finds Hot Tuna working in a style reminiscent of Muddy Water's "Rock Me Baby" and brings out the best in all concerned. A rockabilly excursion through Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" is unfortunately cut short due to a tape stock change. The recording resumes well into the next number, Falzarano's "Big Fish," with its relaxed and laid back feel, before Kaukonen continues on slide guitar for a sizzling cover of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me."
This first set of the evening winds up with another great track from the new album, Kaukonen's "It's Alright With Me," followed by Falzarano taking lead vocals on the classic eight bar blues, "Key To The Highway."
-Written by Alan Bershaw