by Michael Bamberger
Since Election Day, you may have noticed, there’s been a run on the reliable. Neighborhood restaurants, the BYOs in particular, are crowded, and diners linger. Familiar acts now bring pause: hanging up a windbreaker in a coatroom, knowing it will be there at the conclusion of services. On Thanksgiving, our Forbidden Drive Turkey Trot was packed, hatted runners pounding out five early miles in the name of various good local causes and guilt-free second helpings.
On the Saturday after it, Hot Tuna, ancient road warriors of the blues, visited the Keswick Theater in Glenside, as they do each year in late November. They played long and slow, as they always do, every song road-tested and built to last. The regulars knew every note, just about.
Hot Tuna’s frontman, Jorma Kaukonen, and the band’s bassist, Jack Casady, are both in their 70s, and their friendship goes back to their high school days in Washington, D.C.
They’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but this night was a million miles from show biz. They didn’t introduce the songs. There wasn’t any story-telling or on-stage chitchat. Nobody cared. (It’s been a talky fall.)
Jorma played for Jack and vice-versa, and the audience leaned in. It was as if everybody needed to get lost.
At various times, Jorma faced Jack, and the neck of his Gibson guitar was pointed at your head. You could drift. The songs were about sex, shotguns in a variety of gauges, summer rain, regrets, resurrection.
Jorma was singing songs once sung by black men during the Depression, and you were remembering Jorma playing through sunrise at a decaying Long Island disco palace in the summer of ’79.
In an aisle up against a wall, a tall man with wire framed glasses danced for about three straight hours, his moves an odd series of repeating gyrations that looked like a Harlem Globetrotter mocking a twitchy, overeager defenseman.
Whatever jabbering CNN or FOX or talk radio were engaged in on that Saturday night, here was a lucky soul blissfully unaware of it, at least for a few hours.
Elsewhere in Glenside, beyond the pink neon lights of the Keswick, the town’s taverns and pizza parlors and small restaurants were filled with college kids on Thanksgiving break, cell phones in hand, eyes on overhead flatscreens, IPAs on their lips.
At Woodstock, as part of Jefferson Airplane, Jorma and Jack played for a heaving sea of college kids. The summer of ‘69. Woodstock was not about the reliable and the familiar, but it was loaded with let’s-get-lost.
As an encore at Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane played “Come Back Baby,” written by the Delta bluesman Walter Davis and recorded by him in 1940. Jorma played it early at the Keswick. Talk about plaintive.
Come back baby
Let’s talk it over
One more time.
Jorma and Jack started playing together in the late 1950s, mechanical kids in a mechanical age. (Fender amps, Chevy engines.) They were launched in the golden age of manufacturing, and against long odds, they’ve been able to keep at it. They make music.
After 60-ish years they know each other’s moves, of course, but it was not a night of comfort music, or not completely, and it was not a night without surprise. Late in the show, Jack did something on his bass, produced something on his sleek Epiphone, that Jorma, three feet away just then, was not expecting.
He raised his bearded chin and laughed. Time stopped. You could see ecstasy washing over him, along with a gold filling on a front tooth.
They played an encore and a second one. Then the house lights came up, and the doors were opened and the audience shuffled out and into the cold November air.
A Saturday night post-election reprieve — the one sponsored by Hot Tuna, anyway — was over.
Michael Bamberger, 56, a Sports Illustrated writer who lives in West Mt. Airy, is the author of “The Swinger” and “Men in Green” as well as several other books and one play, “Bart & Fay,” that was performed in 1996 at the Walnut Street Theatre. More information at www.si.com/author/michael-bamberger.