Hot Tuna, Leon Russell
Jan. 14, 2014
"How y'all doin'?" Leon Russell's honking rasp cut through the cheers and applause, after his crack combo tore through a revved-up, Southern-fried take on the Little Richard chestnut "Rip It Up." Seated at a white baby grand piano, with his Gandalf gray long hair and beard, Russell looked every bit the Old Testament prophet, albeit a patriarch in shades and white cowboy hat.
Russell spun a few tales of his youth from the piano bench, talking about playing underage at Hoochie Coochie clubs, picking up R&B and Pentecostal music on a crystal radio set, and springing revival music on his starchy Methodist Church.
Hot Tuna, playing seated in their acoustic trio configuration, opened the bill with the meditative yet invigorating "New Song For The Morning." The telepathic interplay of Jorma Kaukonen's hypnotic finger-picking, Barry Mitterhoff's cirrus cloud mandolin and Jack Casady's crunchy-yet-liquid bass yielded a round-robin of solos, bouncing from burbling bass to the smooth flowing stream of Kaukonen's guitar while Mitterhoff's mandolin danced like droplets of rain on the water's surface.
Plucking choice moments from a set that was all highlights is a daunting task, but here goes: Kaukonen's confidently lackadaisical vocal, grainy yet as smooth as single-malt scotch, dominated the gently strutting "Hesitation Blues." Yet on the break-down, Kaukonen and Casady turned to each other, trading a ping-pong match of solos, finally merging into a duo where Casady's roiling bass coiled around Kaukonen's fretboard flights.
Rattling guitar strings and zither-like mandolin surrounded Kaukonen's "Some Velvet Morning" style vocal on "Serpent of Dreams." Mitterhoff's slipknot banjo imbued Jimmy Rogers' "Prohibition Blues" with an insidious swing. Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues" shape-shifted into a game of chutes and ladders, climbing up a misty waterfall before splashing down into the country blues pool. Mitterhoff's mandolin runs echoed a flying balalaika on "More than My Old Guitar" before bouncing back to join the viscous river-bottom bluegrass.
Kaukonen and Casady revisited their Jefferson Airplane Alma Mater with "Good Shepard," transforming the psychedelic pedal-work of the original into plaintive finger-picking, growling liquid bass, gypsy Django Reinhardt excursions and acoustic, prog flights of fancy before snapping back like a rubber band to a hill country stomp.
After standing for a brief confab, the trio returned to their seats for the pulsing, Middle-Eastern tinged whirlpool of "Embryonic Journey."
Countering Hot Tuna's hushed, intense interpretations of folk, bluegrass, country and blues, Leon Russell's combo of bass, guitar, drums and piano barreled out of the gate with a full tilt boogie, rock 'n roll show.
Powered by Beau Charron's Skynyrd-colliding-with-Albert-King guitar licks, Jackie Wessel's Crescent City-swinging bass, Brandon Holder's propulsive double-time drums and the maestro's cheese-grater smooth growl and pounding piano, Russell and crew raced through a breathless medley. This opening salvo included solo gems like "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Dixie Lullaby," plus bayou boogie covers of Flatt & Scruggs' "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms" and Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do."
The tight band turned on a shiny dime from supercharged two-step to squawking Muscle Shoals gospel rock, before transforming Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" into a stomping war-dance buoyed by slippery stride piano.
Only then, did the band take a break. Russell doffed his shades and regaled the crowd with one of his handful of sardonic tales of life in the music trade. A story about discovering a jump and R&B artist with the grandly evocative name of Ivory Joe Hunter segued into the band's Southern-fried, glam-rock-stomping cover of Hunter's "Kansas City Woman." Wessel's and Holder's ominous back-beat anchored the sorrowful swing of Charron's pedal steel guitar as the band surged into a hip-swaying rendition of the Stones' "Wild Horses."
Charron doubled Russell's piano on the warm and jazzy Ray Charles cover "Georgia on My Mind" which showcased the master's gloriously ravaged, industrial-strength voice.
A word about Russell's white piano. It became obvious that the instrument was a stealth baby grand. In the shell of the acoustic instrument, Russell had concealed an electric piano, and judging by some of the surging, otherworldly sounds he produced, a top-flight synthesizer too. As Russel's band punched like a panzer division through the hard-hitting orchestral sweep of "Hummingbird," the surrealist oom-pah and clinking carny keys of "Tightrope" and the N'awlins shuffle of "Delta Lady," the set verged on becoming too glitzy and glammy, a showbizzy, Slade-like stomp through the gospel and R&B bayou which threatened to bury Russell's mellifluous nasal honk.
Yet before the spit-and-polish became overpowering, the band trouped offstage, leaving the spotlight to Russell and his faux baby grand. It was here that Russell shined. There was heartfelt emotion and sweetness in his rattling growl as he essayed the touching ballad "Sweet Emily." With tin pan alley nods to George Gershwin, "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen" morphed into a deeply moving torch song. The smoky and noirish "Magic Mirror" segued into a yearning and rightly-ragged take on old FM radio staple "A Song for You," revealing the tune as one of the finest love songs that Russell, or anyone else, ever penned.
When the band rejoined the piano man for a brisk and punchy run-through of invigorated rock 'n' roll oldies, it almost seemed an afterthought. Yet the high-powered medley was far from perfunctory. The spirited glitz of the Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," an electro-bayou "Paint it Black," and the crunchy, synthy encore "Roll Over Beethoven" bubbled to a boil in Russel's overheated gumbo pot.
The wildly enthusiastic response to Russell's inspired, artfully arranged performance highlighted the enduring, pan-generational appeal of both roots-rich artists on the Neighborhood's Tuesday night double bill.
Indeed, 10 years ago, the combo of Hot Tuna and Leon Russell would have netted a crowd of mostly old white guys. Nowadays, In this post-Mumfords-and-Avetts world, there were a lot of fans in their 20s throughout the full house, many thronging the stage. I asked one couple, neither old nor white, what drew them to these artists, and how they knew about them. The young guy showed me the Surrealistic Pillow CD booklet he was holding.
"I know about Hot Tuna from Jefferson Airplane. That group is awesome!" He might have told me more, but he had to go meet the band - and get that booklet signed.