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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fair
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Hot Tuna saturate the Barrymore with two hours of enjoyable acoustic blues
All of the musicians in Hot Tuna are truly accomplished.
Credit:Mike Noto

Hot Tuna mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff introduced Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, the leaders of the group, as "the Felix and Oscar of the psychedelic era" on Friday night at the Barrymore Theatre. This was about the only reference made to Kaukonen and Casady's past in Jefferson Airplane the entire night. Since branching off from Jefferson Airplane in 1969, Hot Tuna's musical style has been split between unadorned acoustic blues and electrified blues-rock. Friday night's performance was an exhaustive exploration of the acoustic side.

The set list was filled with blues standards, and the group also played a few country songs. They kept the original numbers to a minimum, which was a good thing, considering that "Second Chances," from the band's most recent studio album, Steady as She Goes, was probably the low point of the show. But Kaukonen's innuendo-laden song "Barbecue King" was an amusing highlight, dryly introduced by Kaukonen as "a single-entendre song."

The band's humor worked well onstage. They enjoyed an easy, conversational rapport with a rapt audience. Throughout the concert, it was jarring to hear most of the band's quiet and technically proficient solos greeted with the type of shouting a person hears in a sports bar when the Badgers score a goal against the Golden Gophers.

At the very least, all of the musicians in Hot Tuna are truly accomplished. Kaukonen's subtle, excellent blues fingerpicking is about as proficient as a guitarist can get in the style, and the most impressive thing about his playing was that he never showed off. It's often more musically worthwhile to know what notes to play at the right times than to flash one's playing skills, and Kaukonen always observed that rule. His wry singing, too, was never overdone -- a problem that can plague modern blues singers -- and frequently felt as lived-in as a pair of old jeans.

Mitterhoff, who also played electric tenor guitar, banjo and ukulele, was a somewhat different case. He tore through an enormous number of fast-fingered improvised solos on the mandolin. But there were times when his prodigious technique seemed to be controlling him,rather than the other way around. For example, his soloing on "Hesitation Blues" felt more like showmanship than what the song needed. But for the most part, his turns in the musical spotlight were enjoyable.

Jack Casady's bass playing, however, was the real revelation. Casady was the most virtuosic and imaginative musician in the band, and whenever he took the lead, everything became much more energetic. His rumbling tone made for some of the night's most enduring musical thrills. The electric bass is not typically a solo instrument, but Casady's technique, nuance and originality provided a compelling exception. He certainly lived up to the reputation he has as one of the best bassists in rock history.

It was difficult to pick out other highlights of the set because the band's sound was so even. Though Mitterhoff's frequent switching between instruments provided some diversity in instrumental color, the pace never rose above midtempo, and after two hours, things began to feel a bit monotonous.

The group's taste in blues tended toward the Piedmont style: Kaukonen is a Piedmont blues-style guitarist influenced by Gary Davis, who originally recorded four of the blues songs featured in the set. The last Gary Davis song of the night, "Death Don't Have No Mercy," was an interesting demonstration of the potential problems with this approach. The song is a devastating, haunted blues number with chilling lyrics, but it was sung and performed in exactly the same lulling, jamming style as the rest of the material.

None of that seemed to matter to the crowd, though, who cheered for every solo and every song. There wasn't much in the way of surprise or stylistic variation after the first 15 minutes of the concert, except when Casady was soloing, but Hot Tuna provided a lot of intelligent musical interplay and, above all, a good time.

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