By Andy J. Gordon
Nearly fifty years after their formation as a side project of San Francisco’s hippie psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna still delivers authentic blues-rock at their live shows. They joined forces with Bay area-based guitar wizard Steve Kimock on the Electric Hot Tuna Fall 2018 tour that hit the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on September 6, 2018.
The band has gone through multiple lineup changes over the years, but 77-year-old guitarist/vocalist Jorma Kaukonen and 74-year-old bassist Jack Casady, both founding members of Jefferson Airplane, are the consistent heartbeat of Hot Tuna. Drummer Justin Guip joined the touring band in 2014 after producing their last album, Steady as She Goes in 2011. Kimock has a longtime connection with members of the Grateful Dead, including touring with Phil Lesh & Friends, Bob Weir’s Kingfish and The Other Ones. His guitar prowess and pedigree are a natural fit with the Hot Tuna sound.
The band’s two-set show featured extraordinary playing by all four musicians. Kimock watched from the wings as Hot Tuna opened each set as a trio. He joined the band about halfway through the first set to form a dynamic quartet. During the first few songs of the set, the trio played tunes from their 70s catalog like “Been So Long,” “Ode to Billy Dean” and “Talkin’ Bout You.” Kaukonen impressed with nimble finger picking while Casady’s thumping bass line rumbled like thunder through the theater.
When Kimock joined the band for “Sea Child,” he played a mounted lap-steel guitar that was a beautiful complement to Kaukonen’s Gibson solid body. Kimock switched to a Fender Telecaster for the remainder of the set. Casady drew well-deserved applause for a monster solo during the Robert Johnson classic “Walkin’ Blues.” The band ended the set on fire with Casady and Guip playing a hypnotic rhythm line that led into a distorted, jam-heavy version of Bobby Rush’s “Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man.”
Kimock played with the band for most of the second set. Before he came out, the trio played an old Blind Blake blues standard from 1927 called “That’ll Never Happen No More.” Casady had a great solo and Kaukonen once again demonstrated his impeccable finger picking. Midway through the set, Kaukonen dedicated the 1969 Jefferson Airplane song “Good Shepherd” to Grace Slick, that band’s lead singer, saying, “this one’s for you Gracie, wherever you are.” The band jammed hard as Casady and Kimock each performed amazing solos.
The crowd got fired up near the end of the set as the band played two tunes from 1975’s America’s Choice album. For “Hit Single #1,” Kimock played the mounted lap steel again and traded licks with Kaukonen, who generated wild sounds with his distortion pedal. On “Funky #7,” a two-part extended jam, Kaukonen ripped a heavy blues intro before the band joined in. Kimock played an impressive and creative solo. Casady and Guip engaged in an intense low-end duet before Guip took over for a solo. All four musicians launched back into part two for more jamming before closing it out.
The band was supposed to say goodnight at this point. It had been nearly three hours of incredible music, but the rock veterans on stage and the comparably experienced audience would not let things end. The band launched into 1974’s “Genesis,” originally released on Kaukonen’s first solo album. To put a cap on the beautiful night of music that was now officially crossing into the next morning, the band ended the show with the haunting, classic instrumental “Water Song” from 1972’s Burgers.
The Electric Hot Tuna tour with Steve Kimock concludes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on September 11. Acoustic Hot Tuna shows begin in Ithaca, New York, on September 27 and hit venues around the United States straight through January 2019. Be sure to catch these extraordinary musicians playing an impressive collection of classic blues-rock tunes.