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Hot 'Effing' Tuna Takes the Beacon Theater By Storm

02/20/2015 10:33 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

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It's often been said, "There's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert."

While that's certainly true, there is also nothing like a Hot Tuna concert. Unlike Dead Heads, Tuna Fans tend to be more rowdy and aggressive, less "Peace and Love, man" and more likely to scream out "Hot Fuckin Tuna" to regularly startle everybody.

The most recent Beacon Theater' Hot Tuna' concert on December 13, 2014 was exemplary in every way. And, it was the Beacon Theater that always makes it a grand Tuna affair.

When Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady play together, whether it's an acoustic show or righteously electric, Hot Tuna fans show up in force. And they're generally not playing hackey sack or selling bean sprout wraps in the parking lot. Much more likely to find them in close-by bars drinking beer and talking about "Come Back Baby" from the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey on 11/20/76.

While rowdier, Hot Tuna fans love their Jack & Jorma and each other.

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When Jack & Jorma play together, it's a very special event.

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Jorma and Jack were the guitar/bass backbone of the Jefferson Airplane; this iconic "San Francisco Sound" band practically invented the genre. Their two monster hits, "Somebody To Love" (#5 on Billboard) and "White Rabbit" (#8 on Billboard) in 1967 were the first two Summer of Love, psychedelic recordings to chart.

Hot Tuna started as a "side project" of Jorma and Jack's in early 1969, while Grace Slick was recovering from throat surgery. Albeit these were the given reasons, it strikes me that the real reason Hot Tuna was began was as a sort of "jumping off point" for Kaukonen & Casady who had an intense interest in the Blues. Factor in the alleged, rampant drug use; Jorma's apparent disillusionment with the Airplane as the lyrics to "Third Week in Chelsea" highlight; and the fragmenting and separation of the Kantner/Slick from the Kaukonen/Casady camps, and there are a plethora of reasons for the birth and growth of Hot Tuna. (For intrepid Tuna fans, there's an amazing day-by-day evolutionary path from the beginning and growth of Hot Tuna in January 1969 here.)

THE PERFORMERS

Jorma Kaukonen is legend.

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Jack Casady is adored by bass players and Hot Tuna fans worldwide.

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THE MUSICIANS

G.E. Smith, Guitar

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GE Smith is a personal favorite of mine. I like his professionalism, his musicianship and his immaculate guitar mastery. Though he can rip leads with the best of him, his rhythm guitar chops are amongst the best out there. When he backs up another guitarist, that guitarist is backed up to the hilt.

Having started out as Hall & Oates lead guitarist, then spent 10 years leading the Saturday Night Live Band and won an Emmy, Smith is known and knows everyone in the music business. Backing up a serious "Who's Who" of celebrity musicians, Smith and the SNL band knew and played with virtually every musician of consequence. Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Al Green, Eddie Van Halen, Dave Gilmour, Johnny Winter ... I mean, the list is literally endless. Smith also toured with David Bowie and Bob Dylan while directing a lot of "Live Aid" and "Farm Aid."

Larry Campbell, Guitar, Mandolin, Violin, Pedal Steel

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Larry Campbell seems to me to be one of the most multi-talented string players imaginable. And he plays them elegantly. Married to singer Teresa Williams, Campbell and his wife make a most picturesque duo and couple onstage. They are connected by more than just the music. And it shows.

Campbell is best known for touring with Bob Dylan from 1997 to 2004 and was very closely connected to Levon Helm, his Levon Helm Band and his Midnight Ramble concerts taking place at Helm's studios in Woodstock, New York. In addition to touring with Dylan and Helm, Campbell has also made significant guest appearances with The Black Crowes, Emmy Lou Harris, Elvis Costello, Further, Phil and Friends, Roseanne Cash and Peter Wolf playing guitars of all descriptions, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and pedal steel.

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Teresa Williams is married to Larry Campbell and together they form a formidable force in harmony and music. Williams has the voice of a soaring songbird and is the one female voice I can imagine competing with Grace Slick's. The Tuna crowd absolutely loved Williams and her mister, Larry Campbell.

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Having just signed a recording contract with Red House Records on the very night of this Beacon Theater show, Williams and Campbell put on a special celebratory show to be sure.

Barry Mitterhoff, Mandolins

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In 2002, Barry Mitterhoff started playing with Hot Tuna and plays all manner of mandolin superbly. Mitterhoff has also worked on and contributed to movie music scores such as "You've Got Mail" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou."

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Justin Guip is not your ordinary drummer. In addition to being the sound engineer and production manager for all of Levon Helm's Rambles, and drumming alongside Helm more than any other drummer, Guip has won three Grammys.

THE INSTRUMENTS

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Myron Hart II is the guitar tech and production manager for Jorma & Jack and was kind enough to provide some of the quotes below. He's been with Jorma for 12 years and at Jorma's Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp since it began.

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Jorma's Martin Signature acoustic

About the Martin M-30 Jorma Kaukonen acoustic guitar, Hart told me, "Jorma has three of those, #1, #2 and #80 something of a run of 120 of them; they sold out quickly and Martin did another run of them."

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Jorma's Gibson "Chet Atkins" SST solid body acoustic guitar

Hart said, "I don't know that anybody has ever used an SST like Jorma ... the sound. The bridge is set-up like an acoustic guitar. It's an early '90s, that we split and use the built-in preamp."

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Jorma's beloved Fender Jazzmaster which he just started playing recently

"This is a brand new Jazzmaster," Hart said, "that's a Mexican Fender customized to a 'Classic Player' Jazzmaster. I did some things to the neck and installed 'humm'-canceling pickups. I also shielded it with copper tape, so it's quiet."

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Two great gits await their master

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"Jack's bass is a late '90s model," Hart said. "He's had several basses because each time they have a production run, he gets a new one. It's really well-designed and made, unique. Bass players can afford to buy them because they're well under $1000, about $700 I think."

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The inimitable G.E. Smith tunes his Epiphone

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G.E.'s revered 1953 Fender Telecaster waits patiently for its turn

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Larry Campbell's Fender Telecaster

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The Louis Electric amps below are specialized amps that "sound old" (said Hubert Sumlin) and have been used by Keith Richards, Warren Haynes, Robben Ford, Jackson Browne and our hero, Jorma Kaukonen. Founded by Louis Rosano, these amps seem to be gaining some serious traction among artists.

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The Louis Electric KR-12 amp head/cabinet and in foreground, a Louis Electric Deltone played by Larry Campbell

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The Louis Electric Tremoverb used by Barry Mitterhoff

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The Louis Electric '58 Tweed Twinmaster used by Jorma

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The Jack Casady bass rig

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An interesting use for a guitar amp: stage vocal monitor

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Jorma's effects rack

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Barry Mitterhoff's effects rack

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Larry Williams' effects rack

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Finally, the stage was set

THE VENUE
What can be said about New York City's Beacon Theater? "The Beacon Theater's ornate, neo-Grecian interior features 30-foot tall Greek goddesses flanking the proscenium arch of its curtain-less stage," can certainly begin the description. Built in 1926 and originally named the Roxy Midway Theater, the venue sat dormant for a few years due to financial woes and eventually opened on December 24th, 1929 as Warner's Beacon Theater. Hosting everything from the Tony Awards to the Allman Brothers Band' extended engagements to David Bowie to the Rolling Stones, the Beacon Theater has over the years been a damn fine venue to see Hot Tuna too.

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THE SOUNDCHECK
Hot Tuna's sound-check was closed. But here, Jorma and Jack happily sign posters for sale at the merch table.

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THE ARTIST COMMENTARY
Jorma has a new solo album available on February 17th, "Ain't No Hurry."

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Jorma Kaukonen
What are you excited about? "I'm excited about life in general. First of all," Jorma told me a few weeks before the Beacon show, "Larry Campbell produced the last Hot Tuna album, 'Steady As She Goes' and also produced my new solo album, 'Ain't No Hurry.' And Jack played bass on 'Barroom Chrystal Ball,' so that was fun."

What kind of computer do you use Jorma? "I'm a modern guy, of course, I use a Mac."

Fur Peace Ranch is Jorma's 'boot camp' for musicians, guitar players and anybody interested in learning any stringed instruments imaginable. "I'm very excited were just ending our 17th year at Fur Peace Ranch. I live in a very rural area there at Fur Peace--beautiful surroundings, so it's an ideal place for people to come and learn new things or refine their technique. You can come and just talk to all us 'gear-heads' if you want; some people just enjoy that. We offer a four-day week from Friday to Monday and we focus on helping the instructors be fun and not intimidating." Fur Peace Ranch offers instruction with Jorma, Jack, GE Smith, David Lindley, Larry Campbell and many other string-playing icons depending on the timing of the session. They also have acoustic and electric Hot Tuna concerts there.

Didn't you always used to play Gibson L5S's? "Yes, I did love the L5S. For the Beacon show I'll be playing a Gibson 'Chet Atkins' SST for the finger-picking electric songs. I've been playing Les Pauls for years but now I'm playing a Fender Jazzmaster; I just love that guitar."

I understand Marty Balin will be a special guest. Will Marty sing "Volunteers" with you? Jorma laughs again, "How can you have Marty without playing 'Volunteers?'"

Is it fun being back that The Beacon? "Yes the Beacon is always fun for us. And it's Jack's birthday too," Jorma laughed heartily. "No, Jack's birthday is really April 13th but we thought we'd observe it at the Beacon. As other musicians will appreciate, New York gigs are an important gig and we usually do the New York gigs first, but this one is the last on our tour, so it will be special."

How long will the Beacon let you play with their strict (generally 11pm) curfew? "We'll play as long as they let us. Until 12, I hope," Jorma concluded optimistically.

Displaying a strong interest in giving back, Jorma said, "We're doing a benefit called Road Recovery for young musicians struggling with addiction."

Jack Casady
"We're having a ball on this tour," Casady started me off, "we just did three weeks in a row and the Beacon caps it all off."

Who are your bass playing influences Jack? "Charles Mingus, Scotty Farrell and Ray Brown all really do it for me," he told me.

Tell me about your starting out playing guitar in DC area bands with Jorma. "Well, it was all very disillusioning playing covers all the time because that's what the club owners wanted you to play. People were jumping from band to band, playing cover material in DC. I had some friends who played in an R&B band, you know, Ray Charles, Louis Prima, plaid tuxedos, 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off, five sets per night. 'Can you play bass?' they asked me. I figured, 'How hard could it be?'" Casady laughed out loud.

"Until, the summer of 1965, when Jorma called me up and says, 'Come out to San Francisco, I'm in a band and our manager will pay us $50 per week whether we play or not!' When I told him I had switched from playing the guitar to bass, he said, 'Hold on a minute.' I heard him say to the manager, 'Do we need a bass player? Yes? C'mon out Jack, we need a bassist too.' So I went out and joined the Jefferson Airplane at Jorma's invitation."

"In San Francisco, I found all the musicians came from different backgrounds and influences and that's what made such unique music. Playing at the Avalon Ballroom, Golden Gate Park, Winterland, Fillmore West, The Matrix--where we started out, all these places gave us the chance to go around to them all and see what everybody else was doing, what they were playing. Watching the growth; that was the fantastic thing, watching the growth of different musicians. Hendrix, Jack Bruce, Garcia, Lesh, Santana, they were all so brilliant. I look back on it, and it amazes me how compressed everything was and how much was happening, so quickly. Like Janis Joplin. She was such an amazing singer and I admired her so much. Jorma and Garcia were both working the Folk circuit, then when Jorma and Janis did the 'Typewriter Tape' in the basement, there was a real shift."

"When Jorma and I started sitting down and playing our own music, we quickly reached a point where we couldn't do both--be in the Airplane and play our music. Jorma and I have a love for Folk music and the Blues was what started us off. Jorma is such a great poet and musician and that's what makes Hot Tuna have such a long life. I base all my ideas around a song. It's necessary for me to have that song, so I can build on the melody and rhythm of that song."

Regarding his transition from guitar to bass, "When I first started playing bass, the Fender Jazz bass had just been released in 1960. I fell in love with the register of the J-Bass (Fender Jazz bass). My fingers started feeling the vibrations of the bass through the neck, not the whole instrument."

With respect to his beloved "Jack Casady Signature Epiphone Bass," Casady is justifiably proud. "My Epiphone bass is a real labor of love for me," he stated, "it's been on the market, selling well to other bass players for more than 16 years now. They like it on tour or for the studio. We designed it as a double cutaway. Originally like a Les Paul but I wanted to change the pick-up and I wanted to keep the hollow-body sound--the f-hole sound. I found a Les Paul Custom four-stringed bass at Chelsea Music next to the Chelsea Hotel in NYC."

Do you ever think of Papa John Creach? "I think of Papa John a lot and recently more after playing with Larry Campbell, who plays a mean fiddle, so he makes me think of Papa John."

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Photo Credit: Jim Summaria

Jack Casady's chosen charity is the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation.

GE Smith
I had wanted to ask GE about his guitars. "My Epiphone is a 1962 'Wine Red Sheraton,' he told me, "it's kinda like an ES-335 in body shape with deluxe appointments like an ES-355. This guitar is fantastic. It's a semi-hollow body and it's got resonances from the wings. I got it on eBay from somewhere out in the Midwest. I recognized it immediately as a great guitar that nobody ever made famous by playing it."

"My Telecaster is a 1955, on its way to a 'Butterscotch,' Fender changed the finish in 1955. I've had a lot of Tele's and that's one of the best I've ever played. My Mom bought it for me for my birthday when I was 11. Turns out, it was made in January, 1952 same as me."

"My amp was a 1964 Fender Vibroverb. It has one 15-inch speaker with a 45 watt amp. A beautiful tone; great package. I like 15-inch speakers and I like 10-inch speakers. Most use 12-inch speakers but I like 15's. I have one reverb pedal."

I asked him about one of the songs he did at the Beacon, "Long Gone from Kentucky." "I found that song about five or six years ago and the proper name is 'Kentucky Blues' by Little Hat Jones. I just got really interested in it. It was originally just an acoustic guitar and singer, so I rearranged it for an electric rock band."

THE SETLIST

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THE AUDIENCE
A Hot Tuna audience is generally about as rowdy and ready for a fight as you'll find. With the graying of the congregation, so to speak, I'm not sure how true this is anymore. But those Baby Boomers like me, with an ounce of strength left coursing through their veins, rose to the occasion like a master bullfighter; cheering every drumbeat, every high note and every solo they heard that night.

THE SHOW

Jack came out onstage alone to start the show with a blistering bass solo.

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Then his longtime friend Jorma came out and joined him for a little "Hesitation Blues."

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And when a song or two later, GE joined in on slide guitar, the crowd went wild.

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"Let Us Get Together, Right Down Here"

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The Hot Tuna' classic "Hit Single #1" from the breakaway "America's Choice" album took the Beacon crowd to new heights.

"Bowlegged Woman, Knock-kneed Man" made a surprise appearance that featured Jack Casady taking over the stage for the booming, opening bass lines and prowling like a caged panther.

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Jorma proudly playing his Martin signature acoustic guitar

Then, in a Jefferson Airplane reunion of sorts, Airplane/Starship founder Marty Balin joined Hot Tuna onstage. Singing "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover" (both from the "Surrealistic Pillow" album and written by Balin), one might've been transported back to the Matrix or Avalon Ballroom some five decades ago.

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Balin sang, played guitar and just otherwise made the stage his canvas.

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Then, at some point, Teresa Williams began playing the tambourine and dancing most ardently.

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Her dancing became dervish-like.

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And once again, Williams became soulful with Balin singing by her side.

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An absolutely incendiary "Rock Me Baby" was the penultimate song of the first set. GE Smith's slide solo about halfway through was thoroughly haunting.

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After a brief intermission, Marty Balin's acoustic trio came out and played several, well-received songs before Jorma and Jack's return.

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At some point during the second-set festivities, Jorma and gang wheeled out a "birthday" cake for Jack Casady. "You still got it, my brother," Jorma told Jack to a cheering Beacon crowd. "I want you all back here for my 80th," Casady opined.

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Teresa Williams, seemingly looking right at me

Referring as I did earlier to Grace Slick, I thought a brief analysis of Teresa Williams' vocal efforts was essential.

During this special night, Teresa Williams not only sang Slick's opuses "White Rabbit" and the generationally transcendent, "Somebody to Love" with grace (note small-g), style and aplomb but also sang The Grateful Dead's "Sugaree" which was an unexpected and sublime treat.

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Hot Tuna bookends?

At one point in the set, Larry Campbell turned this Tuna show into a Dead concert by singing great versions of "Big River" and with his wife Teresa, "Deep Ellum Blues." Along with "Sugaree," these three songs quickly and collectively reminded me of how closely connected the San Francisco musical community really was. Jorma famously jammed with Janis Joplin on the "The Typewriter Tape" and with Jack, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Spencer Dryden and others at 2400 Fulton Street, San Francisco in 1969 in what's called the "Airplane House Jam."

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Toward the end of the second set, GE Smith cut loose audaciously on "Long Gone From Kentucky"

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Kaukonen, Smith and Mitterhoff on a roll

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The melodious, hypnotic "Water Song" was slipped into a 22-song, two-set show and most people were overjoyed it was.

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"Funky #7" with Jack's opening bass riffs had the crowd swaying and rocking to the beat. GE's solo was searing.

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The closer of the second set was "Volunteers" with Marty Balin. It was met with a huge roar.

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As Teresa Williams closed out this magnificent Hot Tuna show with an encore of the traditionally male-voice, "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" ...

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... I looked back on a concert that even challenged the famed 11/26/76 midnight show at the Palladium NYC where Hot Tuna played for more than five hours straight. Having witnessed both, I realized I couldn't choose between them.

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Jack and Jorma ... back in the day

Photo Credit: Unknown

All Photo Credits are Bill Robinson except as otherwise noted