Since codifying their low-pressure, high-virtuosity blues while its founding members were still rocking in the Jefferson Airplane in 1969, Hot Tuna has been both a brutally loud hard-rocking blues band and a subtly quiet acoustic combo.
On Saturday at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, the longstanding trio version of the band — founders guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady plus multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff — started with the well-known “I Saw the Light,” stretched to nine minutes of quiet riff heaven, and the old-timey “Hesitation Blues” before uncorking the new tunes “Second Chances” and “Children of Zion” from “Steady as She Goes,” their first studio album in 21 years.
Old or new, the songs showed how consistent Hot Tuna has been over the decades; and how consistently good. While originally hailed for Kaukonen’s fiery electric blues riffing, the trio has become an admirably balanced and much more subtle ensemble. Kaukonen showed off his formidable chops in brief intros that functioned like overtures, surveying and forecasting the chord changes and rhythmic variations to come; or between often flashier forays by Casady, who soloed more on Saturday than in any of the dozen or so previous shows I’ve seen them in since the early 1970s. Casady earned an awed “That was really nice, Jack” from Kaukonen after “99 Year Blues.” And the versatile Mitterhoff excelled on mandolin, mandola, tenor guitar, ukulele and tenor guitar. However, Kaukonen once again proved what an under-rated singer he’s always been.
If Hot Tuna’s blues tunes seemed simple — and basically they are — the variations they ran on them often surprised and dazzled. They turned the tunes inside out melodically, with solos that slithered and slapped the tunes around and reassembled them. Their rhythmic mastery was outstanding all night from Kaukonen’s push-and-pull vocals — he sang like the master instrumentalist he is — to Casady’s behind-the-beat way of pushing the band and Mitterhoff’s hanging riffs right in the pocket.
They played two sets with comfortably cozy peaks and valleys, the first hitting a zippy groove with “Come Back Baby,” then “I Know You Rider,” borrowed from the Grateful Dead and stretched into a suite through crisp but questing improvisations.
Some second-set highlights were new tunes from “Steady as she Goes,” including the regret-free but nostalgic “Things that Might Have Been” and the energetic “Goodbye to the Blues.” But the set peaked with the vintage “Good Shepherd,” extended into a suite and spiced by brilliant solos by Mitterhoff’s mandolin, Casady’s bass and Kaukonen’s guitar.
In their quietly inviting, warm and sweet way of playing and singing, Hot Tuna has become one of our most pleasing, durable and thoroughly charming veteran bands. Having long outlasted the Jefferson Airplane — probably no one ever expected that — they’ve achieved landmark status at their own patented junction of blues conviction, acoustic coziness and brilliant ensemble tightness.