Rock Concert Review: Hot Tuna and Dave Mason at the Wilbur

By Scott McLennan

With a powerful partnership, the possibilities for Hot Tuna, it seems, are endless.

Dave Mason at The Wilbur. Photo: Scott McLennan.

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady are without question in the discussion about who are among the greatest musicians; each has distinguished himself by developing a style that is easy to pick out and that others often try to imitate.

But more importantly, Kaukonen, 78, and Casady, 75, have over time forged a partnership that’s as vital to their art as raw talent is. The duo use music to speak a language they seemingly invented, yet cannily allow the rest of us in on the  exhilarating dialogues.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hot Tuna, the band that Kaukonen and Casady formed as a side project to their work in the Jefferson Airplane, the pair performed with drummer Justin Guip at the Wilbur on Aug. 21. The veteran rockers’ delivered a vibrant performance, which lasted about 100 minutes after an opening set by Dave Mason and his band.

Billed as “electric Hot Tuna,” the concert tilted toward Kaukonen and Casady’s more frenetic tendencies, such as the unhinged and raunchy jams played during a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Talking ’Bout You.”

But there was also ample time spent showcasing Kaukonen’s distinctive finger-picking style on an electrified acoustic-body guitar, and on Casady’s ethereal bass lines. That gold-plated partnership inspired Kaukonen and Casady’s exploration of new terrain on such old, familiar numbers as “Candy Man,” “Serpent of Dreams” and an exquisite “Good Shepherd,” a song that bridges Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

Though started in 1969 as an acoustic blues outfit, Hot Tuna proved in short order that it was a raging electric blues band too, and represented that legacy with hard-driving versions of “Walkin’ Blues” and “Baby What You Want Me to Do.”

The anniversary show also celebrated Kaukonen’s songwriting, a blend of folk’s earnestness, gospel’s spirituality, and rock’s muscle. “In the Kingdom,” from 1974’s The Phosphorescent Rat album, was a particularly welcome deeper cut in the set list, and Hot Tuna’s  quirky personality burst through the devil-may-care “Day to Day Out the Window Blues.”

Hot Tuna finished with stellar readings of two of its signature songs – “Funky #7” and “Water Song.”  The former closed out the regular set and featured Casady playing brilliant lead lines throughout the tune while the latter – a crystalline instrumental—was an encore and reiterated how Kaukonen’s playing can be as delicate and precise as it can be heavy and urgent.

Hot Tuna at The Wilbur. Photo: Scott McLennan.

With a powerful partnership, the possibilities for Hot Tuna, it seems, are endless.

Mason played an ample 90-minute opening set, packed with songs from his benchmark 1970 Alone Together album. (Arts Fuse interview) As a founding member of Traffic, Mason also tapped into that band’s songbook, and rounded out the set with other signature songs from psychedelic rock’s late-60s heyday, such as Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

While Mason’s song choice, guitar playing, and arrangements were all solid, most of his set sounded workmanlike – technically on point but often lacking the emotional resonance that made these songs so powerful in the first place.

The jazzy reworking of Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” (which was recorded after Mason departed that band) and celebration of Cream via a cover of “Badge” kept the set from being predictable. And in spots, particularly during an epic reading of “Look at You, Look at Me,” Mason, who was backed by a second guitarist, drummer, and keyboard player, made the case for his artistic vitality. Even his biggest pop hit “We Just Disagree” was downright agreeable given some distance from the era of mid-’70s rock schmaltz it sprung from.

But Mason undermined himself with a limp singalong rendition of his early hit “Feelin’ Alright,” consigning it to karaoke hell rather than undertaking a rescue mission.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.


  1. Joe Biggs on May 31, 2023 at 2:48 am

    From the top of this I want to say that I greatly disagree with McLennan’s review of this concert (especially his condescending observations of Mason’s performance). Although the show was almost four years ago, I just now came across this article. While I have been a Traffic fan since the 60’s, with and without Mason, I was also very fond of Airplane and Hot Tuna. In fact I attended two Tuna shows in the 70’s.

    My daughter, who was 17 at the time, and I were in Boston the week of the show sightseeing. We were going to a game at Fenway that night, but chose not to sit in the rain and looked for a dry alternative. I then discovered this show at the Wilbur and talked her in to going if we could cop last minute tickets.

    She is somewhat of an old soul musically and really immensely enjoyed Mason’s “ample” set, as did I. I have attended multiple shows of his over the years and felt that this one held up extremely well. However, when Hot Tuna came on I was struggling from the onset to enjoy what I was hearing and could not get into that old vibe that I was expecting. After about six tunes I looked at my daughter and asked what she thought. She said that she didn’t care for the set, but was happy to stay if I was into it. We left!

    Actually our timing was quite opportune. While I had bought one of Mason’s cd’s earlier, which he had autographed, there only time to say thank you and make way for the next fan in line. Later, as were exiting the theater, we came upon Mason standing outside his tour bus and engaged in the most enjoyable conversation. My daughter and I thanked Hot Tuna for enabling this unexpected opportunity!

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