I saw Hot Tuna in concert for the first time some 13 years ago at the Mishawaka Inn, a weird sort of backwoods joint tucked into the banks of the Poudre River outside of Fort Collins, Colo. The drive up the Poudre canyon was a beautiful one, twisting and turning through the craggy landscape that marks Colorado’s Front Range. Unbeknownst to myself and the rest of the boisterous crew—this was a time when left-hand smoke and right-hand road sodas accompanied all road trips over five miles—in my old Jeep, we happened to be cruising at no piddling speed through acres of open range land.
After one particularly sharp, blind curve, we found ourselves in the midst of a large herd of cattle. With no time to honk, think or stop, my reflexes took over and I somehow managed to swerve our way through the critters without creating any instant T-bones. It was over almost as soon as it started, and the shocked silence in the car gave way to a hooting celebration. The event, immediately dubbed the Poudre Cow Slalom, remains a favorite story and I still have the tuft of bovine hair that I later picked out of the Jeep’s side mirror.
OK, the connection between a bunch of cows and a venerated musical duo may seem to be a tenuous one, at least on the surface. After all, a cow is merely a cow while Hot Tuna is guitarist/vocalist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, two founding members of the seminal ’60s band Jefferson Airplane. Perhaps anticipating the god-awful devolution of the Airplane into Jefferson Starship and then just plain Starship (“We built this city on rock and roll…because we had no integrity left to build on”), Kaukonen and Casady formed HT as an acoustic side project and then left the Airplane altogether in the early ’70s.
Although HT has toured and recorded in various and accomplished electric ensembles over the past three decades, Kaukonen and Casady have retained a firm grip on the HT sound—a firm foundation of blues layered with traditional folk and even country. The tour that brings them to Missoula is billed as “The Original Acoustic Hot Tuna”—meaning just the two of them—and a lack of sidemen in this case is no lack at all. Kaukonen’s guitar work ranges from feel-good grooves to blistering rides down the fretboard, and his vocals can be described as somehow both primal and mellifluous. Casady is simply an anchor like no other (this is, after all, the man who created the epic bass lines of “White Rabbit”); his bass work seems impossibly huge for a mere duo to withstand.
But withstand it they do, with a body of work that is at once fierce and soothing, unrepentant and spiritual. And that brings us back to the cows. The likelihood of two monster musical talents finding the sense of purpose and humility to meld into the sweet, accessible sounds of Hot Tuna is on a par with finding an occasion to drive through a herd of cows at full speed. I don’t know that I would have—or could have—done it for any other band.
The Original Acoustic Hot Tuna play the University Theatre this Friday, June 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets $21 advance, $23 day of show. Call 1-888-MONTANA.