SAN FRANCISCO — It’s said that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. San Francisco’s rock and roll crowd got a handy reminder Saturday night at the Fillmore. Psychedelic old-timers Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen revisited a venue that may have reminded them of something a dormouse said. They performed Saturday, on the final night of a two-show stand, under the banner of Hot Tuna, their half-century spanning folk-rock collaboration.
Performing an electric set, Hot Tuna explored earthy territory all night long. Kaukonen strode onstage looking serious and distinguished. Flowing tattoos graced his left arm, while his right hand exercised his signature fingerpicking style. On opener “Serpent Of Dreams,” he guided a stoic electrified folk tale. He selected notes dexterously, throwing off glinting showers of melody. During many oozing blues jams, Kaukonen summoned his classic sustain-tremolo leads between gruff ZZ-Top-like jabs.
Casady, who turns 76 in April, was attentive and impressive all night. He carried the songs with straightforward riffs and an upfront tone on a bronze semi-hollow Gibson bass. Expertly picking his spots to improvise, he bent the aural experience with dark notes and jazz-inspired dissonance. His two expanded solos mined the hypnotic underworld of his and Kaukonen’s former band Jefferson Airplane.
Kaukonen appeared to be having an off-night during the early part of the set. Struggling to lock in his chops on a punchy jam that required strong leads, he took a too-short post-structural noise solo before walking to the back of the stage to drink water and regroup. Casady, left to hold things together upfront, locked in the riff and reached down for a defiant solo that drove the audience nuts. With the crowd onboard, Kaukonen returned red-faced and upped the mojo on his Gibson Firebird guitar.
It was a defining moment, and moving to see the two long-time friends soldier on. Hot Tuna seemed to communicate with each other solely through music. Rounding out the power trio, Justin Guip kept things fairly simple on the drums. From his perch, he reflected the energies of the other two. What began shakily bloomed into a commanding performance from the masters.
As expected, the 79-year-old Kaukonen lent his flavor of hard rock to a plethora of obscure tunes. As the owner-operator of Ohio-based Fur Peace Ranch, Kaukonen is well-known for his extensive knowledge of American folk songs and styles. The music lovers’ retreat hosts guitar workshops, concerts and countryside motorcycle treks.
Rooted in blues, folk and bluegrass, the set borrowed from multiple schools of guitar wisdom. The stomping Charleston catalyst “99-Year Blues” combined country swing with Hot Tuna’s electrified, bass-heavy bluegrass method. Scorcher “Barbecue King” showcased more magma-saturated lead guitar by Kaukonen. Scuzzy hard rock was the catch of the day, generating perhaps the most enthusiasm from fans. Country-tinged bar blues and varmint-chasin’ rhythms underscored Kaukonen’s fingerpicked gems. Occasionally, Kaukonen’s pretty chordal excursions into pastoral bluegrass rounded things out with gentler sentiments.
After an hour and a half of jams, Kaukonen and Casady each made a brief appeal to the audience amid decaying notes and amp feedback. A gorgeous ballad signified the end of the set proper. After a brief recess, the band returned for a searing encore of “Walkin’ Blues.”
David Bromberg Quintet opened the show. David Bromberg, a disciple of Reverend Gary Davis, entertained with a solid band, fine guitar playing and clever lyrics. Assertive onstage, Bromberg led his group in a variety of movements. An affecting a capella version of “Standing In The Need Of Prayer” surprised with its novelty. On one song, the band achieved a unique tonality as three band members harmonized on mandolins. Most songs, like the ironic “I’ll Take You Back,” featured a classic rock band setup, with a second guitar and fiddle.
Bromberg’s strong acoustic guitar solos blended well with the compositions. A reticent Kaukonen joined on set closer “Buddy Brown.”
Hot Tuna will continue its ambitious, multi-leg tour into the summer of 2020.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.