In 1969, Jefferson Airplane was on hiatus while Grace Slick recovered from throat node surgery. Several remaining members of the band began playing clubs in the Bay Area of California. That band, primarily led by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, played covers of Jefferson Airplane songs and old-time blues and folk songs. Initially a band in waiting for Jefferson Airplane, then an opening act for the same band, Hot Tuna evolved into an independent band. Kaukonen and Casady remained the core of Hot Tuna, with many other musicians coming and going as the band alternated repeatedly between acoustic and electric formats. Hot Tuna performed live between 1969 and 1977; in 1983; and from 1986 to present. Hot Tuna’s seventh and most recent studio album is 2011’s Steady as She Goes.
Headlining its annual Thanksgiving-time concert at the Beacon Theatre, Hot Tuna this time played as an electric trio, augmented by drummer Justin Guip. Kaukonen had two guitars on stage; one for ripping into hard rock tunes and one for more subtle, earthy songs. As usual, the set included several compositions written by Kaukonen, but at least half of the concert was comprised of folk blues covers. Hot Tuna opened with its own “True Religion,” but soon delved into vintage songs by Billy Boy Arnold, Rev. Gary Davis, Julius Daniels, Bobby Rush, Blind Blake, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Walter Davis. Throughout the set, Kaukonen’s deft finger-picking style burned brightly, and Casady frequently took his bass playing out of its traditional rhythm role and into complex melodies. Hot Tuna played 21 songs over two sets in about three hours, turning virtually every song into six to twelve minute jams. Tonight, like most performances over the past 47 years together, Hot Tuna masterfully wrangled gritty, rocking tones from Americana roots, uniquely bridging the various eras of the 20th century.
Jim James/Terminal 5/November 20, 2016
For reasons of simplicity, James Olliges, Jr. used the name Jim James when he began performing at local open mics in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. James contributed songs, sang and played guitar in a local rock band called Month of Sundays beginning in 1994. By 1998, James had accumulated several songs he felt were not a fit for Month Of Sundays, and looking for an outlet he formed what would become the rapidly successful My Morning Jacket. James then injured himself in a fall from a stage in 2008, putting My Morning Jacket on hiatus and allowing him to start working on solo projects. He soon resumed work with My Morning Jacket, but also recorded albums with Monsters Of Folk in 2009 and The New Basement Tapes in 2014. James released his third solo album, Eternally Even, on November 4, 2016.
My Morning Jacket headlined five nights at Terminal 5 in 2010; this time around Jim James showcased his alternate cache of songs with one concert at the same venue. As such, this time around James looked very much like the MMJ singer, with his scraggly beard, dark glasses and long coat, but he performed no MMJ songs. To further distinguish the lines, he played very little guitar this time and trilled like a rhythm and blues singer. The new James persona was equally as eclectic as the MMJ character, however. When he played guitar, the songs rocked; when he played keyboards, the songs dissolved into an atmospheric trance; when he played no instruments, he crooned sentimental pop like Amos Lee. Backed by the opening act, a trio of fellow Louisville-natives called Twin Limb, plus a bassist and additional drummer, James performed nearly all of his current solo album, five songs from an earlier solo album, two covers of songs he recorded with Monsters Of Folk and The New Basement Tapes, plus a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” Those who attended hoping for an MMJ experience had an otherworldly experience instead, but this world was impressive as well.
The Living End/Gramercy Theatre/November 21, 2016
Chris Cheney and Scott Owen met when they were in primary school in Wheelers Hill, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Cheney saw a Kiss concert when he was five years old and started playing guitar as age six, imitating what he heard on AC/DC cassettes. Owen played piano until at age 17 he purchased and taught himself to play a double bass so he could play rockabilly with his best friend Cheney. Cheney and Owen had their first public gig in Melbourne in 1991. Naming themselves the Runaway Boys after a song by the Stray Cats, they recruited drummers and covered songs by The Clash and the Stray Cats. By 1994 Cheney and Owen were writing and performing their own material and so they became The Living End—a reference to the 1956 film, Rock Around the Clock. The Living End went on to Australian stardom and won five ARIA Music Awards. Since 2002 the lineup consists of Cheney (vocals, guitar), Owen (double bass, vocals) and Andy Strachan (drums). The Living End’s seventh studio album, Shift, was released on May 13, 2016.
Although The Living End has been known in Australia for 22 years, the band continues to struggle for recognition in the United States. The band’s concert at the Gramercy Theatre demonstrated that this was no new band but a tight, polished band that blurred the distinctions between punkabilly and hard rock. Of the 16 songs performed, some were style after a 1950s revival, some were more punk-driven, but others had flat-out AC/DC hard rock markings. Somehow it all would up sounding like the next chapter of The Clash. Impassioned vocals rang clear and detonated into choruses with big hooks, clearly defining each rallying anthemic song despite their similar nitro-powered in-your-face blasts. With proper exposure, The Living End’s controlled rampage would win a strong American audience.
Willie Nile/City Winery/November 23, 2016
Robert Noonan was born and raised in a musical family in Buffalo, New York. He began playing piano at age eight and took classical music lessons until he was a teenager, when he taught himself his first rock and roll song. He soon began to compose songs and made summer trips to New York City’s hootenanny clubs. Reimagined as a singer-songwriter named Willie Nile, after college he rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and soon became one of its latter-day troubadours, gaining the attention of The Who’s Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams and many more. Nile released his 10th album, World War Willie, on April 1, 2016.
Headlining at City Winery again, Nile opened with a solo song at the electric piano, giving credibility to his sensitive songwriter side, but then for most of the evening that facet was hidden under his street-tough guitar-slinging exterior. If the listener could get past the pounding of his delivery, one could find pensive lyrics that revealed the grittier side and the hopes of a New York lifer. These passionate lyrics could have gotten all Billy Joel on the listeners, but instead Nile led his band through a charge of much rowdier vibrancy not too far removed from a Bruce Springsteen experience. Throughout the set, Nile remained true to his own uniqueness, whereby comparisons to other New York-area powerhouses were irrelevant beyond their common geographical inspiration. Nile shared his stories his way, and it rang sincere.