Guest artist Jim Lauderdale was a no-show due to bereavement, but Hot Tuna—Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Barry Mitterhoff, with Skoota Warner on drums—were prepared, opening their acoustic set with “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and dedicating it to him. From there the transition to “Hesitation Blues” was easy, and the mood shifted from expectation to fulfillment, and stayed all night. The band worked through “Second Chances,” “Vicksburg Stomp,” “River of Time,” and “Uncle Sam’s Blues,” sweetly exploring the range of their trio setup before finally welcoming harmonica player extraordinaire Charlie Musselwhite, who played outstanding harp on the remaining numbers of the first set, including a particularly memorable version of “How Long Blues.”
Hot Tuna has been at this for a long time, and the trio owns the territory it mines, which is a Bay-area hybrid of blues, rock, funk, and bluegrass. Acoustic Tuna is fresh and comforting. Electric Tuna, which took over after intermission, is darker and more dynamic—a jam band with sharp teeth.
Mitterhoff played excellent leads and fills on a variety of acoustic and electric instruments, some guitars but mostly mandolins. Kaukonen lived up to his reputation as a classic-rock guitarist of unusual skill and taste, and made a charming frontman to boot. But the Tuna’s secret weapon on Thursday night was Casady’s bass, which belongs to a Bay Area bass tradition that has had such a huge impact on American popular music. Casady’s a true classic, a description that also befits Musselwhite, who sang a bunch of songs in the second half, played some slide guitar, and blew the most gritty, soulful harmonica imaginable. By the time the encore was finished, everyone in the room was sold.