Concert Review by Rob Turner
Jorma Kaukonen &Jon Shain at The Arts Center in Carrboro, North Carolina, February 19, 2000.
Jorma Kaukonen’s return to the “triangle” area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) was part of a big weekend on Franklin Street just outside of Chapel Hill. Literally two storefronts away the Smashing Pumpkins were slated to perform a rare club date at Cat’s Cradle. Unfortunately, two of the original members of the band were unable to perform that night, so the cogitative Billy Corgan performed most of the show solo.
Word has it he pulled it off just fine, by the way, some of his most hardcore fans were actually delighted while a handful took advantage of the band’s offer to redeem admission to any displeased patrons.There was no refund seeking at The Arts Center on this night.
These two artists were planning on performing solo all along. Jorma Kaukonen, veteran of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and so much more, was the headline. His appearance was met with much excitement, as it was his first area gig in an intimate setting since an appearance at Under The Street in Durham seven years prior (almost to the date, 2/13/93).
Jon Shain, who opened for Hot Tuna as well as Kaukarano (Jorma’s duo gig with Michael Falzarano) a number of times as a member of Flyin’ Mice, was in a familiar pre-Kaukonen slot. (Jorma even sat in with the now-defunct Mice a couple of times.) The combination of the return of a legend, and one of the triangle’s finest singer/songwriters, made the show an easy sellout.
Jorma Kaukonen’s set
Loan Me A Year
Child Of Tomorrow’s Summers
New Year’s Eve
One Way Gal
Step It Up And Go
Jon Shain’s set:
Jon Shain was in the middle of a hell of a week. He and his wife had just closed on a new house. How many people can say that they were opening for Jorma Kaukonen Saturday night, and then picking up a truck rental Sunday morning to spend the entire day moving?
Shain opened the set with a version of his updated take on Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee’s The Letter. While his performance on acoustic guitar was a little shaky behind the initial vocal portion, the first section of lead guitar was so impressive it elicited applause from the crowd. The next six songs were from Shain’s 1999 solo release “Brand New Lifetime”. His finger picking on Loan Me A Year was a bit more subdued than usual, perhaps in deference to Mr. Kaukonen. He chose spice up this version with a lead guitar not usually heard on Loan Me A Year, and an enlivened lead vocal.
Jon was in strong vocal form the entire set. This paid off particularly well as he offered note-perfect versions of three of his stronger recent originals, which also were well received by his hometown crowd. Child Of Tomorrow’s Summers featured the presumably unintentional nod to Corgan’s worries at Cat’s Cradle, with the lyric “frightening nightmare’s in the cradle.” This was a particularly impassioned rendition, as Shain engaged himself in the lyrics of the song, especially as he sang, “at harvest time we’ll have to scour the field, for the seeds we’ve never sown.” He also played a note-perfect, gorgeous solo in this number.
One of Shain’s favorite one-two punches lately has been the old-timey Porcupine Rag, and the Stephen Stills-flavored muscular acoustics of Armchair Warrior. These two shined particularly bright tonight, and grunts of appreciation for Shain’s luscious guitar picking emitted from finger watchers sitting up near the stage.
Shain then pointed out that another one of his heroes was in The Arts Center that night, the esteemed North Carolina bluesman Lightnin’ Wells. Shain then performed One Way Gal, which he introduced as written by a Piedmont blues musician from the twenties, William Moorealthough Shain stole it off of one of Wells’ albums. Shain also chose this moment to acknowledge the many guitar students of his that were in attendance, to which the students shouted out their approval.
There were many of Shain’s most fervent fans in the house also, and he treated them to a rare solo reading of a former Flyin’ Mice showstopper, the poorly titled instrumental epic, Acoustic Solo. (I always thought the title didn’t do the adventurous song justice) Later, one taper who follows Shain’s career closely suggested that it may have been the first live version since Flyin’ Mice disbanded.
Perambulatory Blues, a long time staple of many Shain projects, found him offering a fiery lead at breakneck pace, definitely his strongest guitar work of the set. Jon then engaged the crowd in a call and response on the set-closing Step It Up And Go. As he departed the stage, most of the audience exalted him with a standing ovation.
I was taken by the respect Jon showed Jorma by shaping his set to complement Jorma’s performance rather than compete with it. The Americana feel of some of his songs, the guttural singing synchronized with an entire lead he took on Armchair Warrior, and of course the call and response with the crowd on Step It Up And Go, all served to appropriately whet the audience’s musical palette for the Jorma set that followed. Shain displayed an awareness of the fact that there is no need to finger pick too many tunes when one of the greatest of all time is on deck.
Jorma Kaukonen’s set:
Harvey Colman’s Clapton Story Intro
Trouble In Mind
How Long Blues
Death Don’t Have No Mercy
Do Not Go Gentle
I See The Light
Sunny Day Strut
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Living In The Moment
I Am The Light Of This World
Follow The Drinking Gourd
Uncle Sam Blues
Happy Turtle Song
San Francisco Bay Blues
Police Dog Blues
Keep On Truckin’
One thing that highlights how Jorma has improved, as a performer in the years that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy him is his vocal delivery. As far back as I can remember, Jorma’s guitar prowess has always been evident. However, when I first started seeing Jorma in the eighties, his vocal approach, while always resonant with soul, was sometimes was lacking in comprehensibility. While he was still a delight to see back then, one really had to come to the show armed with prior knowledge of the lyrics of his repertoire to garner a full appreciation. While he still has his own distinctive warm growl delivered with robust soul, he now also sings with consistent clarity. And his guitar work…well…. ridiculous…..off the hook….at times inconceivable….Jorma is one of those artists that render words worthless and weak, but that’s all we got so here we go.
Jorma’s tour manager and close friend, the enigmatic Harvey Colman, regaled the crowd with a story while introducing the man some call, “The Captain.” “Eric Clapton was doing an interview one time and somebody asked him, ‘How does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world?’ And Eric said, “I don’t know, ask Jorma Kaukonen!” After showing Harvey some appreciation for going the extra mile with the introduction, Jorma slid into a tune believed by many to be written by B lind Connie Williams, Trouble In Mind. Jorma eased into the set with pretty straight readings of this and Hesitation Blues. That is to say, straight by lofty Kaukonen standards. He did lend some extra muscle to one portion of Hesitation. Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues seemed to energize Jorma, as one slightly botched section gave way to muscular low note improvisations immediately.
Jorma threw down some stunning instrumental work, holding notes and series’ of notes to build tension, and slamming out of them only to return to more liberal improvisation and eventually launch into other note holding sessions. Some of the riffs that he tossed out during Walkin’ were nothing short of jaw dropping, and the show was in gear.
Responding to a request for In The Kingdom, Jorma shared a prayer that he had heard on NPR recently, “I pray for the day I can be the man my dog thinks I am.” He then laid a spectacular version of How Long Blues on us, which featured some stunning sinewy guitar lines. His vocal was outstanding as well, especially his delivery of, “I thought I heard a whistle, mama I think I see a train. Deep in my heart there is a achin’ pain.”
I thought Death Don’t Have No Mercy was going to be the rarely performed Another Man Done Gone at first, until he injected an acrobatic low note guitar roll into the introduction signaling that it was indeed Death. Again, he exhibited many stunning low note guitar flurries. One of the many head-scratching things about Jorma is the amount of notes he can get out with very little plucking from his right hand. That left hand of his is often solely responsible for many, many strong notes, while his right hand patiently waits above the strings. His guitar playing in the verse section of Death seemed to be entirely improvised, and even the fastest riffs didn’t throw off his timing one bit. Jorma’s instrumental passages were pure ear candy, with high notes here, some lusciously repeated chordal work thereit was truly an amazing reading.
I enjoy Do Not Go Gentle, because it is a song that particularly allows Jorma to take it wherever he pleases. Tonight, it wandered into some sweetly ethereal spaces. The opening chords of True Religion, sparked some hoots out of the attentive audience. The reading was slightly slower than I am used to, which seemed to put more emphasis on the prescient lyric of this Tuna classic. Just the way he inserts a gentle smidge of his growl into the verse ending “Hal-ay-lu’s” (phonetic) was chill-inducing.
Nobody Knows You lends itself to Jorma’s style of vocal and phrasing beautifully. An example of one of my favorite things about Jorma was when he crooned the “Nobody Knows You When” and then with “Your” he trailed to a growl and let his guitar play the “Down and Out,” part which flowed seamlessly into an instrumental section. As Harvey would ask, “does it get any better than this….really….does it?”
Living In The Moment, is a new song that will soon have words, “if I’m lucky,” Jorma says. It is a contemplative piece, which tonight I believe had a new portion that wasn’t included in the version I had seen in Atlanta just two days back. It’s always nice to hear Jorma working on new material. This is especially true with a piece like this one, where there is ample space for improvisation. I’m sure Jorma will take advantage of this as he becomes more familiar it. One fan yelled out, “don’t need no words Jorma!”To which the eternally quick-witted Kaukonen responded, “That’s not what my wife says!” Jorma dipped back to his psychedelic days with a heart-felt rendering of Good Shepherd, which was first made popular by the Jefferson Airplane. His vocals were spiced with quiet embellishments. He effortlessly alternated delicate guitar parts with resonant chords where his left hand grabbed the guitar with such might I though he was gonna throw the thing. Jorma also displayed some energetic rhythm guitar before and during the familiar descending patterns that return the song to its final lyric.
99 Year Blues has become something of a “hit” for Kaukonen lately, as the crowd responded to the opening notes, and the end of the first verse for that matter, with fervent applause (as they did in Atlanta). Jorma appeared more than happy to play 99 Year Blues as he fired off some dizzying guitar lines, and was jubilantly toying with the phrasing. Rev. Gary Davis’ I Am The Light Of This World, provided further evidence of Jorma’s ability to easily work his left hand across the fret board like a contortionist. The crowd seemed hypnotized by a spectacular reading of his own spooky composition, Ice Age. Jorma took full advantage of this piece on the final instrumental portion, which found him to twisting the song into new directions before he power-strummed it to its conclusion.
A woman squealed with delight when Jorma announced that he was going to perform Genesis. Jorma thanked the exuberant fan by saying, “bless you.” Widespread Panic covers this song occasionally, and in case some of their younger fans don’t know, it i a Kaukonen-penned Hot Tuna song. His heart-wrenching lead vocal was mesmerizing as Jorma delivered a memorable version of this wonderful song. After its completion, Jorma got ta’ talkin’ about surreal moments, and among the ones he shared was a recent day that he had heard his instrumental Water Song in an Ohio airport. After a couple more stories, he offered an extended version of his instrumental, Follow The Drinking Gourd in lieu of a requested White Rabbit.
While all of Jorma’s material takes on a different feel in a solo setting, this version of Uncle Sam Blues departed radically from any I’ve ever heard. His choices of where to accent, lyrically and instrumentally, were strikingly adventurous. This made for an interesting listen, as did the Jorma chestnut that followed. A friend of Jorma’s had asked him to perform Happy Turtle Song, and Jorma obliged, introducing it as “A little thing in C.” It was a quick lil’ nug, but I’ll take it. Hot on its heels was a version of Mann’s Fate that was nothing short of stunning. There was one point where he was repeating two separate guitar lines in unisonJorma at his stunt acoustic guitar best!
I’ve always preferred Jorma’s approach to Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues to anyone else’s, and tonight’s version did not disappoint. He twisted the song beautifully, stretching out some words, and galloping through others. His fingers skipped across the guitar as he offered an unthinkable array of rhythms, repeated notes, and sick licks. The room seemed in collective awe as it was beyond silent until a rousing ovation greeted its conclusion.
Jorma’s tantalizing reading of Water Song ended the set. The crowd exploded with a loud standing ovation that did not let up until he returned to tune up for a solid version of “Police Dog Blues.” After he attempted to leave again, the crowd continued to roar their approval. The venue turned on the house music, but that only caused the crowd to increase its cheering. As the thunderous applause drowned out the house music, Jorma re-emerged to leave us with a animated version of Keep On Truckin