A band I was too young to see live, but burrowed deep into me, nonetheless. I soared on Grace Slick‘s vocals and got interplanetary with Paul Kantner. But guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady were the instrumental beating heart of the band. Casady with that tree trunk tone and Kaukonen’s signature fretwork and reedy vocals. The Airplane is generations gone, and (good riddance), all the clunky spin offs that followed are long past, too. Space captain Kantner left us a few years back and Slick left music in the late 90s (though she remains a very active visual artist).
Fortunately, Hot Tuna, the Casady-Kaukonen psychedelically rooted blues trio is rolling into year 50, with an electric tour that stopped at the El Rey Theatre the Thursday after Labor Day. Like other recent tours, multi-dimensional guitarist Steve Kimock joined the Tuna for a good part of both sets (the K-men run deep, Kimock a teacher at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp, which sounds like a pretty special place to hang, if you got the chops).
Entry to this one was like stepping back in time. Hippies and weed and nothing in the pre-show playback past 1970. The gig was billed as “partially seated” on the El Rey web site, no doubt a nod to the older demographic and the sold out floor was filled…with chairs. Unlike some of the band’s legendary marathon shows back in the day, this two-setter actually wrapped a little after midnight.
Kimock joined for most of both sets, with Jorma switching between his Gibsons of choice – a Firebird and an SST, for quieter fingerpicking. The end of the first set was back-to-back Blues, as in “Hesitation” and “Walking”. The former traditional tune (we’re talking 1916 traditional) synonymous with Kaukonen, was received like a hit single, and the latter, showcasing some hard-biting excursions from Kimock and Kaukonen. The night’s highlight, however, was undoubtedly, “Good Sheperd”, the lone Airplane tune (actually, another traditional tune, that appeared on perhaps my fave Airplane disc, 1969’s “Volunteers”) coming well into the second set. Kaukonen dedicating the song to Grace Slick. Kimock, Kaukonen, Casady and drummer Justin Guip rolling over and over again, finding edges and texture that gave the room a glow no one wanted to see end. Wiki tells us Jorma characterized the Airplane’s take on the song as psychedelic folk rock, and for a good chunk of minutes, time really did compress, and the distance between then and now faded away.
Some visuals from the evening…