As the baby boomers push into middle age and seek appropriately grown-up music to soundtrack their Brie, cigar and trophy bride parties, there’s been a dismaying explosion of really bad blues music in the national marketplace. Check the club listings: on any given night you can find someone playing three-chord, toe-tap shuffles while spilling their guts about impoverished, substance-abusin’, girl-done-did-me-wrong lives in the Mississippi Delta that they never lived, while a room full of white bread business executives nod sagely and sip their double malts. The blues have also been blighted over the past decade by a grotesque profusion of so-called “wunderkinds” who wouldn’t recognize life’s bitter realities if mugged by them, having spent (or worse, still spending) their teen years holed up in their suburban bedrooms masturbating over Stevie Ray Vaughn tabs. It’s just about enough to put a sensitive music critic off the genre, fer chrissakes.
Fortunately, every now and again a Jorma Kaukonen rolls into town to tamp down the bad blues attitude a bit. Kaukonen has spent nearly 35 years exploring, studying and sharing the under-appreciated country gospel side of the blues house, building his canon largely around the works and stylings of Reverend Gary Davis. Over the course of nearly twenty-five records with Hot Tuna (featuring his one-time Jefferson Airplane band-mate Jack Casady) and on his own, Kaukonen has almost single-handedly kept Davis’ idiom alive and relevant, serving as keeper of a flame that few contemporary players have ever imagined, much less been burned by.
Kaukonen brought two of his current Hot Tuna band-mates (keyboardist Pete Sears and guitarist Michael Falzarano) to Valentine’s last Saturday to display that flame in all its glory, lighting the room with eye-moistening musical depth and brilliance. While Falzarano and Sears’ left hand provided elegant, under-stated rhythmic patterns, Kaukonen’s guitar and Sears’ right hand laid down a seemingly-endless series of perfect, emotive riffs, fills, runs and solos. But not pointless, endless showboat solos, mind you. These solos added to their songs. These solos were succinct. These solos were shaped by restraint and demonstrated their players’ understanding of the fact that four beats worth of silence can sometimes say much more than four beats worth of sixty-fourth notes.
Kaukonen sang Saturday night as well, filling the room with his smooth croon, laying out tales that were less about drinkin’ and fightin’ and shootin’ the muleskinner’s wife than they were about the real, simple things that most real, complicated people face every day: matters of faith, matters of love, matters of life. Kaukonen himself was full of life onstage, coming across like a veritable buzzcut Santa Claus with a gold tooth, wearing a Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame t-shirt because he’s in it, delivering the goods and sharing or cookie or three before vanishing into the night. It certainly seemed like everyone in the room was happy with the presents he left them.