LIVE: Hot Tuna and The Midnight Ramble Band @ The Egg, 12/01/2021
Two Iconic Acts Showcase Left and Right Coast American Legacies
For more than half a century Hot Tuna has toured under one of two banners: Electric Hot Tuna and Acoustic Hot Tuna. Wednesday night at The Egg, they opened with Jack on electric bass and Jorma on acoustic guitar, but the majority of their hour-and-10-minute set was electric organic metal if you can understand the weirdness of that oxymoron.
It was Wednesday night in downtown Albany as Jorma and Jack faced off and clicked together like two matching Lego pieces…snap, crackle, pop. Two white-haired old men whose personal lives have intertwined since they were teenagers in DC. It was Jack who lured Jorma to San Francisco to join Jefferson Airplane, point men in the Haight Ashbury scene that would usher in society’s awareness of the psychedelic sounds of The Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Moby Grape, and the 13th Floor Elevators.
Jorma once told me that he in essence was in over his head with the Airplane, that his son plays better guitar than he did then, and that if he hadn’t been taking drugs in the ’60s, he’d have been too bored to go down all the blind back alleys (my words, not his) of the Airplane. He, like Janis when she first moved from Port Arthur, Texas to San Francisco, was a folkie in awe of The Rev. Gary Davis but not wealthy enough to afford lessons with the Reverend who was most influential in turning nescient hippies onto the Delta and gospel roots of their songs.
Hot Tuna started as a side project, a sharp left turn from the Airplane for Jorma and Jack where they could indulge in American roots music at the same time the Airplane was flying in the opposite direction becoming ever more mainstream and changing their name to the Jefferson Starship.
This is primal stuff, with Jorma switching off, back and forth on at least a half dozen guitars. Jorma has spent the pandemic doing quarantine concerts at his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio with his old friend and cohort John Hurlburt chronicled in the breathtakingly beautiful two-CD set The River Flows Vol. I and II. Those recorded concerts bring out a softer side to Jorma.
The set at The Egg was far from soft. It was Jorma the firebrand, the man who bought the entire run of the TV horror series “The Strain” about the death of humanity from a disease not unlike Covid where people don’t know who’s a killer until it’s too late. The set opened with an acoustic version on “How Long” but got increasingly basic in stringed primal screams that had Jack and Jorma literally facing off on each other like two schoolboys on a playground egging each other on as their adrenalin rush pumped up the volume.
As they played musical whack a mole on “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” I flashed back to a show they did at the Palace around 1997 where the marijuana smoke was so thick it reminded me of the London fog in the film “Doctor Jeckel and Mr. Hyde.” The crowd at that show was over the top with the balcony bouncing up and down to the beat.
Don’t quote me on that. I may have been experiencing a contact high.
The crowd at The Egg wasn’t that gonzo, and it was somewhat disconcerting to see that many aging long hairs in tye dyes struggling to walk up the aisles. Some even left early even though the 7 p.m. show only ran until 10:30, including encores.
Never in my younger days did I think I’d ever see “adults” grooving to primal sounds more than 50 years after the bands of the Haight loudly proclaimed that they weren’t driving daddy’s Oldsmobile anymore.
The opening act The Midnight Ramble Band was the yin to Hot Tuna’s yang: 10 fantastic musicians, the cream of the Woodstock hickory wind legacy paying homage to the late Levon Helm, founding member of The Band and Grammy-winning solo artist who died in 2012. The sound was almost overpowering, not just in decibels but in the outpouring of talent that perpetually proves that the Woodstock Festival in 1969 was simply the media event that brought the kind of attention to the left coast arts community that Jorma and Jack were dolling out on San Francisco Bay.
The whole hour-long set was highlighted by classic Band songs. Larry Campbell was the ringmaster of this folk/rock/blues/Americana mini-orchestra. Vocals were shared primarily by Levon’s daughter Amy, along with Larry, and Teresa Williams. Jim Weider shared lead guitar duties with Larry, and the entire experience left me hoping I can find Levon’s farm again in Woodstock to experience their legendary Saturday night rambles.