Hot Tuna was on the menu at Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza and Live Music.
And though the tiny joint packed fans in and there was room for Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady on the venue’s small, low-slung stage, Natalie’s isn’t a hanger. So, Kaukonen good-naturedly cut off Casady as he tried to roll Jefferson Airplane inside as he played his intro to “White Rabbit.”
“I see you’re still on California time, Jack,” the guitarist told his long-time compatriot to laughter from the audience.
“Join me back here in Ohio.“
For an hour and 45 minutes, the two friends sat side by side and played acoustic songs from their lengthy Hot Tuna partnership.
Kaukonen fingerpicked with his right hand and used his left for perfectly placed pull-offs, hammer-ons and harmonics that accentuated his lead lines, which were dizzying in their frequency and diversity. Throughout it all, Casady, bobbed in and out of the melodies and took plenty of solos of his own, including an innovative showcase on “Good Shephard,” that found him scratching his strings and plucking out notes that caused the audience members – some only inches away – to cheer for more.
“Play all night,” one patron yelled.
“What century do you think this is?,” the 75-year-old Casady, looking incredulous through wide-open eyes, replied, causing Kaukonen, 78, to retort: “This is all night.”
It was 9:30 p.m.
And when Kaukonen said, “it’s our pleasure” after a fan yelled out his thanks for the performance, it was obvious he wasn’t lying.
Just a couple of hours up the road from Kaukonen’s homebase at Fur Peace Ranch in Worthington, Ohio, the duo, in jeans and sports jackets, were in high spirits. They laughed at inside – often unspoken – jokes between numbers; smiled at each other’s best riffs; and played the songs of a lifetime of music making together. Mostly ignoring the setlist at their feet, Hot Tuna ran through originals like “Barbeque King,” which Kaukonen preceded with an adlib about the pizza tonight, and the cascading instrumental “Water Song,” which closed the show, to traditional and spiritual numbers that have long appeared in their sets including “I am the Light of This World,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “I Know you Rider,” “Hesitation Blues,” “How Long Blues” and “Come Back Baby” among about a dozen others.
Kaukonen’s tapping foot, fully audible in the front of the house, accompanied Casady’s bass on the bottom end. The sound of the guitarists fretting their instruments added to the intimacy of the evening. And the audience was respectful and quiet during the performances, loud and appreciative between songs and on their feet when it was all over.
Some people say going to concerts is like going to church. Sometimes that church is a pizza shop. And the preachers are occasionally a couple of former psychedelic warriors and Woodstock veterans who have always been grizzled bluesmen at their core.