BLUES ON THE DOWN LOW AND UPSWING: Hot Tuna, headlining Thursday’s blues/country/rootsy revue at the Lobero, is one of those formidable American bands that crept into being on the fringes. It has remained there, but in a major way, as a cult band, country-blues ambassador and scene-defying veteran entity. Jorma Kaukonen—singer/guitarist with the cool Finnish name and blood—and limber, lumbering bassist Jack Casady were blues and roots music-lovin’ kids from Washington, D.C., in San Francisco’s late-’60s ferment. They became folded into the Jefferson Airplane, but steered their rootsier hankerings into the band that became Hot Tuna. The Airplane crashed and burned, its parts reused in the Starship, and the Tuna prevailed.
Some 40 years later, the band—with the founding duo ever at the core—soldiers and sallies forth, on the brink of its first new studio album in two decades, Steady as She Goes (Red House). For his part, Kaukonen pays it forward by running the Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp in rural Ohio. This Thursday night’s “Hot Tuna Blues” traveling medicine show is a revue affair, also featuring blues harp ace Charlie Musselwhite and master of assorted country stylings and songwriting Jim Lauderdale, with mixing and matching slated to occur throughout the evening.
LIKE HELL, YOU SAY: From the “who woulda thunk?” department comes the startling realization that Saturday’s Sings Like Hell (SLH) is the 200th edition of an idea which might have seemed short-lived at the outset. Celebrating the milestone, stars are out in force, with Jeff Bridges, T-Bone Burnett, Jackson Browne, Glen Phillips and …? By now, SLH is such a fact of cultural life in Santa Barbara that we might forget the audacity of the original notion. What was this—monthly concerts by singer/songwriter, Americana, and like-minded artists, with a subscription model borrowed from the classical world and a series moniker stolen from a Peter Case album? It helps that series founder facilitator Peggie Jones is passionate, well connected, sartorially splendid—and slightly crazy. It also helps that Hale and Anne Milgrim have been behind-the-scenes mover/shakers, along with other heavy-hitter patrons and supporters (including Jeff and Susan Bridges). Not least, it also helps that the series has as its atmospheric and historic home the glorious Lobero, one of America’s great small theaters, and supplier of the music’s vibe-soaked context.
Getting to show number 200 can’t help but stir up the memory banks (and databases) of shows fondly recalled over the years by us habitual SLH fans. Call me crazy, but personally, my favorite SLH show was a teetering (reportedly the band wasn’t used to getting free beer backstage) but brilliant Austin band called the Gourds, who are slated for a return visit next season. But memory serves up numerous other fine shows in this series, including Crooked Still, Rodney Crowell, Kathleen Edwards, Todd Snider (back when and just recently), Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown back in December, Chris Smither, the wondrous moodster Alexi Murdoch (whose shoegaze approach didn’t seem to tickle a lot of the subscription audience’s fancy), and any number of sightings/soundings from our hometown hero Glen Phillips, who sings heavenly or hellishly, to suit a given ditty. The list of notables goes on … Blue Rodeo, Carrie Rodriguez, Patty Griffin, Teddy Thompson, Richmond Fontaine, Martha Scanlan, The Waifs, Susan Werner, Daniel Lanois, Damien Rice …
I also fondly remember a rare primarily non-singing headliner, the Telecaster master Redd Volkaert, cooking up tasty hotplate guitar work suitable for more than just guitar geeks, joined by his old pal Seymour Duncan, whose own Tele riffing is something to behold. Poignantly, that show also featured an opening set by the late, great, locally and globally beloved Kenny Edwards, who passed on last fall.
Going back over favorites in the Sings Like Hell concert-ography is more than idle neurotic list-making pastime, more than details from a blur. The monthly continuum has turned into a critical cultural ritual and a secret society open to all, celebrating the strength and soul of The Song.