It’s not every day a couple of rock & roll legends play their hometown. That was the case as Hot Tuna recently appeared at the Warner Theatre on what will be their final electric tour. At the core of Hot Tuna, throughout its numerous lineup changes over more than 50 years, is the partnership of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, both of whom grew up in DC.
You may not know Hot Tuna, which has achieved a cult following on the jam band circuit, but, you’ve almost certainly heard Kaukonen and Casady’s work with the psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane, which emerged from the vibrant San Francisco music scene in the mid-to-late ’60s. As members of that band, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Hot Tuna began as an acoustic side project for Kaukonen and Casady in 1970. Jefferson Airplane’s lead vocalist, Grace Slick, was temporarily sidelined after having surgery for a vocal nodule. Eventually, Kaukonen and Casady left the Airplane, and Hot Tuna became their principal music vehicle. Where Jefferson Airplane was one of the most prominent psychedelic bands, Hot Tuna finds its inspiration in the blues and American roots music that Kaukonen had long played.
Instrumental prowess is Hot Tuna’s calling card. Kaukonen is one of the foremost exponents of fingerstyle guitar picking, and is much sought after as a teacher. In addition to recording and touring, he also owns and operates the Fur Peace Ranch, where hosts retreats and camps for guitar players of various skill levels.
Jack Casady’s style of bass playing is innovative, paving new ground for those who came after him. He was one of the first bassists to play lead melody parts on the instrument. Like many bassists, Casady started out on the guitar, and he transferred a lot of his playing style between the instruments. Any time you hear someone like Les Claypool of Primus playing lead on the bass, you’re hearing something that mostly originated with Casady.
Stream This Is Hot Tuna, a playlist, on Spotify.
As the son of a state department official, Kaukonen’s musical ambitions weren’t always approved of or supported by his family. When he was a senior, Jorma lived with his grandmother, who very much disapproved of the path he wanted to follow. He recalled how, at one early show, his grandmother came out to hear him play. She was, he said, “repulsed by the music, but we were so loud it was the first time in years she’d heard music.”
At Warner Theatre on Sept. 30, Hot Tuna split their show into two sets. They kicked off the set with a Hot Tuna original, “Second Chances,” followed by a tune from Jorma’s solo work, “Ice Age.” Covers featured prominently in the set, as is often the case with jam band shows: Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues” and Bobby Rush’s “Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man” were played during the first set, and the Rev. Gary Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and Chuck Berry’s “Talkin’ Bout You” in the second. Both sets included a Jefferson Airplane song: “Trial by Fire” and “Good Shepherd” in the first and second set, respectively.
The remainder of Saturday night’s performance consisted of Hot Tuna songs: “Ode for Billy Dean,” “Soliloquy for 2,” “Sleep Song,” and “I Don’t Wanna Go” in the first set, and “Letter to the North Star,” “Sea Child,” “In the Kingdom,” “Hit Single #1,” and “Funky #7” in the second. For their encore, they played “Water Song.”
Hot Tuna may be a cult act, but their fans are dedicated and passionate. After the first tune of the night, someone shouted, “Fuckin’ Hot Tuna!” to which Jorma replied, “That’s the spirit.” Numerous times during the show, the crowd rose to its feet to reward the band’s spectacular playing with a standing ovation.
If Hot Tuna is coming to your town, this is your last chance to catch them playing an electric show, and you shouldn’t miss it. It won’t be their last tour, though, as they’re still planning to do acoustic shows in the future, with plans to tour in summer 2024. Either way, they’re a great time and magnificent musicians.