It was Sunday night and Jorma Kaukonen was definitely feeling the spirit. Perhaps that’s why he initiated a two set performance at Natasha’s that ran merrily past the 2 ½ hour mark with a 40 year old Hot Tuna original called True Religion. It was a nimble, unassuming bit of testifying, to be sure. In fact, the guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee bequeathed most of the song’s solo sections to longtime mandolinist/sidekick Barry Mitterhoff. But the resulting feel – the jubilant but wary country-blues spiritualism that would be addressed later in the evening through songs from bluesmen like the Rev. Gary Davis, Lightning Hopkins and Leroy Carr – was pure Kaukonen.
Time was when a Kaukonen show would vary little from one by Hot Tuna, the longstanding blues unit the guitarist has led with fellow Jefferson Airplane alumnus Jack Casady. That was especially true when it came to repertoire. Last night’s outing shifted course, however.
Sure, there were Hot Tuna staples like Hesitation Blues, How Long Blues and Death Don’t Have No Mercy. Kaukonen didn’t write any of them, of course. But given the very singular blues voice he has fortified the songs with over the years, not to mention the very assured versions offered last night, he might as well have. But this performance also mixed in tunes from three Kaukonen solo albums and a new Hot Tuna recording, all of which were released in the past decade and all of which featured Mitterhoff.
Highlights of the newer works included a revivalistic Children of Zion (another Davis gem), a lullaby-like Heart Temporary (with Mitterhoff on bouzouki) and the life cycle title tune to 2009’s River of Time.
While much of the material possessed a sense of rootsy affirmation, there was also a devilish side to the performance. The title tune to Kaukonen’s overlooked 1980 album Barbeque King was all earthy indulgence drenched in a bluesy dressing that matched the tune’s lyrical debauchery.
But atonement came by way of the encore – specifically, the 1967 Airplane classic Embryonic Journey, a fingerpicking original that concluded this immensely spirited and satisfying Sunday service with a slice of solace.