Tuna Deluxe with Trucks!

Hot Tuna - Derek Trucks

Hot Tuna - Derek Trucks

November 30, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2000, Volume 7, #2

Written by John Metzger

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What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Derek Trucks was hardly known outside the close-knit family of Allman Brothers Band fans. Likewise, Hot Tuna has been playing to the same small, but loyal fan base for years, despite the well-deserved exposure the group has received on each of the Furthur Festival tours. Then things began to change for both Trucks and Hot Tuna, though it was more a series of steps than any single event that moved these artists towards greater popularity.

For Trucks, it was successive high profile tours first as a bona-fide member of the Allman Brothers Band and then by a round of dates as part of Phil Lesh and Friends. Hot Tuna's Jorma Kaukonen and Pete Sears also had an opportunity to share the stage with Lesh's revolving entourage, and Hot Tuna has also benefited from three distinct album releases through Grateful Dead Records ...And Furthurmore, Sing Out for Seva, and Love Will See You Through.

Therefore, it was only a matter of time before these two paths became intertwined. After all, Trucks and Hot Tuna share a common love of the blues, drawn from two different generations of fans, and both have recently crossed paths with Lesh. This, in the eyes of a promoter, makes for a "can't miss" co-bill. Fittingly, their current tour stopped by Chicago's House of Blues on November 30 for a belated Thanksgiving, blues extravaganza.

Trucks was slotted as the opening act for the show, and as such he was given a mere 60 minutes in which to perform. Nevertheless, the young prodigy made the most of it. He and his band constructed their set upon a solid foundation of jazz and blues. Yet they allowed the music to effortlessly flow, often in mid-song, from one format to the other much like a musical pendulum. Along the way, the quintet also incorporated elements of funk, calypso, and Eastern-tinged styles, adding a bit of spice to their roots-oriented stew.

A pair of keyboardists Kofi Burbridge and Bill McKay flanked the stage and created a colorful patchwork quilt upon which the driving rhythm of bassist Todd Smallie and drummer Yonrico Scott could rest. These four musicians locked horns and came together to form a turbulent current, reminiscent of the jazz-fusion sound of Miles Davis' band. However, instead of a trumpet, there stood Derek Trucks using his guitar in a similar fashion, turning the songs inside-out and shattering them into a million glittering pieces.

From the opening notes of the ebullient Look-Ka PyPy, the Derek Trucks Band was on fire, and the group only got better as each song passed. By the time it hit the final strains of its Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown-like take of Turn on Your Lovelight, it was impossible not to be impressed with both the young guitarist and his ensemble.

It seems Trucks has surrounded himself with a group of stellar musicians. Consequently, as time passes they will only grow more familiar with one another's style and become even better at stretching out their songs and sifting instrumental passages through a myriad of musical themes. Not that they aren't already well on their way to doing so.

Trucks draws from a deep-seated wealth of emotions and ideas, and through his playing, he is able to convey a musical wisdom that is beyond his years. It's something that simply must be heard to be believed, and even then it's difficult to comprehend into just what mystical power he is tapping for guidance. Suffice it to say, his ensemble is already one of the best at what they do, and if they stick together, down the road they will surely be a mighty force with which to reckon.

Hot Tuna delivered a robust set of its own, and though its songs were drawn from a more straightforward blend of old American folk and blues, the ensemble's performance was no less potent. The group is centered around bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, who began this journey long ago as an outlet for their creative energy amidst the squirming turmoil that was Jefferson Airplane. As that group collapsed and fragmented, Casady and Kaukonen spent more and more time on their own project. Thirty years later, they are going stronger than ever.

Hot Tuna began its two-hour set with a softer edge that reached far back to its Americana roots. Songs like Fool's Blues and How Long Blues were characterized by Kaukonen gently picking a melody against the strum of guitarist Michael Falzarano's steady, even-handed rhythm. On Death Don't Have No Mercy, the band used levels of sound to contrast the quiet sadness in the song with the devastating subjugation of the soul to the afterlife. Likewise, on Good Shepherd, the group moved from tranquil strains into a towering jam, which was centered around the ripping bass of Casady. In addition, Gypsy Fire turned transcendent as Kaukonen, Falzarano, Casady, and drummer Harvey Sorgen sent crashes of rhythm cascading down upon the wisps of swirling organ being delivered by keyboardist Pete Sears.

By the end of Hot Tuna's set, however, the group had turned up the volume to a raging level of intensity as Kaukonen sliced searing leads against a backdrop of crunchy guitar chords overrun by electrified conduits of frothy bass. In fact, the last five songs of Hot Tuna's set were all performed with this Cream-like magnitude. This, at times, not only was spell-binding, but it also was somewhat overwhelming. Nevertheless, it also ultimately became a tad one-dimensional. Save for this single issue, everything else Hot Tuna did was perfect.

Keep on Truckin': The Very Best of Hot Tuna is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Derek Trucks' Out of the Madness is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Copyright 1999 The Music Box