This week’s show found both acts — Leon Russell and Hot Tuna — kicking—with huskier voices and slower tempos, to be sure.
Leon Russell and Hot Tuna at the Wilbur, January 9.
By Brett Milano
Tulsa piano maestro Leon Russell turns 72 this year; Hot Tuna’s two principals Jorma Kaukonen (guitar) and Jack Casady (bass) are respectively 73 and 69. So the two acts’ current string of combined dates, which kicked off at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre this week, is one of those “see them while they’re still kicking” tours. And this week’s show found both acts indeed kicking—with huskier voices and slower tempos, to be sure. But it’s easier to age gracefully when you’ve been a safe distance from the mainstream all along.
Hot Tuna first appeared in 1969 as an opening act for Kaukonen and Casady’s regular band, Jefferson Airplane. And it turned out that Kaukonen’s love for acoustic country blues—particularly that of his mentor, the Reverend Gary Davis—far outlasted his involvement with psychedelic rock. Hot Tuna’s electric party-band days are long over; and nowadays their gospel songs are done without irony (Kaukonen’s reportedly gotten religion in recent years). What’s left is a more elegant stringband sound, with Kaukonen gracefully fingerpicking around newish member Barry Mitterhoff’s mandolin parts. And though they flash back to the rowdiness of younger days, they qualify it somewhat: When Kaukonen delivered the crowdpleasing opening lines of “99 Year Blues”—“Bring me my pistol, three round balls/Gonna shoot everybody I don’t like at all”—he felt obliged to add, “Hey, it’s just a song.”
Nothing seems to faze Leon Russell; in the past few years he’s undergone surgery for a brain fluid leak, and made a mini-comeback with the album The Union with Elton John (both happened in 2010). Yet he’s still playing the same basic show he’s been doing for at least two decades. Of all the legends that Russell’s worked with—a list that includes Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Willie Nelson and two Beatles—it seems Nelson’s influenced him the most as a live performer: They both roll out the familiar songs like clockwork, saying almost nothing in between. Both artists even tend to play “Georgia On My Mind” right in the middle of their shows.
Russell brought the usual setlist to town this week—a few hits from his early-70s glory years (“Tightrope”, “Stranger in a Strange Land”), some of the country material he favored later on, and a bunch of Beatles, Stones and Dylan covers, including an abbreviated version of his “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” medley that highlighted George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh. (No sign of the Union material yet, though he and John have performed it together). But at least the presentation was a bit different this time: He’s taken on a lively four-piece group after a few years of all-synthesizers, so the Southern roadhouse feel of his best work was partly reinstated. More surprisingly, he managed to talk a few times, and though his reminiscences barely brushed the surface of his musical history, he dropped a couple of nuggets. Who knew that the sequined top hat that was Russell’s fashion signature in the ‘70s was a gift from country-rock deity Gram Parsons?
Also surprising was an emotional moment at show’s end, when the band left him onstage alone. He dug up a rarely-played vintage track, “Sweet Emily,” explaining that the long-ago girlfriend for whom he wrote the song had died recently, “and I find myself playing it so I can think of her.” And he made it more haunting by seguing Emily’s song into the hymn, “His Eye is On the Sparrow”—Russell’s voice, already craggy in the ‘70s, took on some world-weariness here. Mortality is never fun, but a good artist can always get traction out of it.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.