“Now we’re cookin,’ ” said veteran guitarist and singer Jorma Kaukonen with satisfaction on Thursday at The Egg after he and multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff lit up “I See the Light” — seven minutes of hot-picking paradise.
The other peak in the first of their two sets was a wonderful one-two of “Blue Railroad Train” and “Come Back Baby,” both stretched by free-flowing but close-knit solos.
They played together like one virtuoso with four hands, mostly in laid-back, front-porch ease, as in their relaxed opening songs, the vintage favorites “True Religion” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and the less familiar “More Than My Old Guitar” from an album recorded this summer at Levon Helm’s home studio in Woodstock. They closed the first set with another newly recorded number, Roy Book Binder’s “Full Go-Around,” after the vintage upbeat/doomed “99 Year Blues” and the beautifully serene “Living in the Moment.”
Early on, Kaukonen let Mitterhoff play the solos, but once he warmed up, he grew more aggressive, thumbing out basslines a la Hot Tuna bandmate Jack Casady (which Mitterhoff also is) in “I See the Light,” then playing in close harmony (different notes, same places) with Mitterhoff in “Come Back Baby.” His singing was equally elastic, blurring bar lines, dropping words, holding back, then pushing — but never pushing too hard. A bluesman to his soul, he launched most vocals with a drawled “well” before strolling into the lyrics.
The second set featured two Grateful Dead songs and two by Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen’s pre-Hot Tuna band. And they were sharp all the way from “There’s A Bright Side Somewhere” to the beautifully sweet encore “Embryonic Journey” from the Jefferson Airplane songbook. The new “Cracks in the Finish” was a highlight early in the set, but the crowd really warmed to the Dead’s “I Know You Rider” and “Operator.” Mitterhoff rode “Rider” from a mellow glide up to bluegrass tempo as Kaukonen grinned encouragement and had no trouble keeping up. In the vintage “Good Shepherd,” the solos were soft but strong, a nice springboard before they sped up into a brief episode of Bo Diddley’s patented beat. A less flashy player than David Grisman or Sam Bush, perhaps, Mitterhoff once again proved himself an expert accompanist with impeccable ears and musical logic, and an inventive, fluent soloist.
Maybe the best thing about this duo — a subset of Hot Tuna, without bass and drums — was its uncanny ability to play really intense stuff really quietly. The music felt like an invitation rather than imposing itself on the audience, especially in the tender “Izzie’s Lullabye” (Kaukonen has a 21⁄2-year-old daughter) and “Embryonic Journey.” Even when they put the pedal to the metal, in the zippy later stretch of “I Know You Rider” and “Just Because,” they eased down the road, fully under control, fully confident the audience was with them and happy to be so.
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