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Swingin’ for Christmas: Monheit at the Egg.

Just Enough Christmas

By Shawn Stone

Jane Monheit

The Egg, Dec. 2

Singer Jane Monheit and her five-piece band held sway over a cozy crowd at the Egg’s Swyer Theater on Saturday evening. It was advertised as a holiday show, and the selections balanced jazz standards, Christmas tunes and a generous helping of Brazilian music by Antonio Carlos Jobim. (Monheit and company have a mostly Brazilian album coming out early next year.) While Monheit has been, over the years, uneven in the studio, she’s effective and thoroughly convincing live. She can scat, but didn’t overdo it—her skill was matched by her taste and restraint.

She opened with “September in the Rain,” a charming ’30s song usually associated with Al Jolson. Monheit crossed up the regret in the lyrics with playful line readings; that sort of thing usually bugs me, but not this time. Pianist Mike Kanan, who was the band’s chief musical wit, switched from the baby grand to electric piano for the next two numbers, the Carpenters holiday ditty “Merry Christmas Darling” and the first of the Jobim tunes.

The Carpenters tune made for a nice few minutes of swing, but I’m not sure if Monheit and company’s approach to the Brazilian sound works. On this—and on the other few numbers from the upcoming disc—the approach was just too hard. They didn’t, for lack of a better word, bring any sway to this sensual, textured genre.

The American pop songs were uniformly excellent, however. Monheit teased out every playful Dorothy Fields lyric in “I Won’t Dance.” The band showed off their cohesion on a hard-swinging “Cheek to Cheek,” even though drummer Rick Montalbano wasn’t thrilled to play it again. (That’s what Monheit told the audience, anyway.)

And the Christmas material? Very nice. Monheit clearly loves to sing holiday music, and thoroughly enjoyed the plaintive “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve”; the warm, inviting Sinatra standard “The Christmas Waltz”; the perennial kids fave “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”; and a surprisingly moving “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It probably helped that she sang the original lyrics, with their melancholy hint of absence and possible loss: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

The show was about 75 minutes, plus an encore and without either opening act or intermission. If it seems too short, it wasn’t. Monheit and band gave the crowd everything they came for.

Hot Shit

Hot Tuna

The Egg, Dec. 3

No, you can’t call yourselves “Hot Shit,” the humorless suits at RCA Records told Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady in 1970 when they negotiated with the label to record their spinoff project, a country-blues acoustic duo featuring Kaukonen’s fancy fingerstyle guitar picking over Casady’s acid-rock electric bass. Their working moniker, Jorma and Jack, wouldn’t do for an album, and with the execs nixing the scatological sobriquet, they settled on “Hot Tuna,” explained variously as slang for either a fresh heroin high (the opposite of cold turkey), or pussy. Fortunately, the Neanderthal band names were not predictive of their music—Jorma and Jack’s first LP, recorded live that spring with harmonica player Will Scarlett sitting in, is a folkie’s delight. When the Airplane disbanded in 1972, though, Hot Tuna went electric and has largely re-mained so since then. For their show at a roughly three-quarters-full Egg Sunday night, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kaukonen and Casady teamed up with mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Eric Diaz for two hourlong eclectic sets of acoustic blues, rock, classic country, and swing.

Fellow Metroland music scribe David Greenberger, whom I bumped into during the intermission, observed that Kaukonen and Casady have played together for so long (since 1960, to be exact) that they sounded like one instrument when playing as a duo, and that some of that cohesion was lost with the addition of the other players.

True, but something’s been gained as well. Diaz’s tasteful drumming allowed Kaukonen to shoulder an electric guitar and with it ratchet up the band’s intensity to recall at times the raw, primal energy of the Airplane. Barry Mitterhoff, a top bluegrass picker, also earned his keep by skillfully adapting the mandolin to other styles—he could even rock out with his electric axes. The most obvious downsides of Hot Tuna’s expansion to a four-piece band, though, was that during his electric-guitar tunes, Kaukonen’s singing (which has never been strong) often got buried in the mix, and his lead- guitar work occasionally lapsed into clichéd riffs.

The first set showcased more of the rootsy, acoustic side of Hot Tuna’s music, and the second tilted toward the electric. The rolling, sedate opener, “Sea Child,” found Mitterhoff playing electric mandolin like a lead guitar as Kaukonen fingerpicked an accompaniment. When the band broke into double time during the Sippy Wallace blues classic “I Know You Rider,” Mitterhoff changed gears to flash his bluegrass chops on his rich-toned 1942 Gibson F5 acoustic mandolin. Jack Casady, who played with taste and precision all night, then contributed the first of several fine bass solos. Later, Kaukonen’s rendition of his Airplane-era fingerstyle guitar showpiece, “Embryonic Journey,” was as flawless as the original.

They began the second set with Bukka White’s one-chord blues tune, “Parchman Farm,” about the notorious Mississippi prison where black inmates were sometimes killed for sport, and followed it with a hard-driving minor-key blues, “Ode to Billie Dean.” But then the band reverted to music with no harmonic movement at all, two such tunes in a row, in fact: “I Wish You Would,” and “99 Year Blues.” Toward the end of the second of these I began to wonder if perhaps chords changed only when they really wanted to change, but the next song, the intriguing “Corners Without Exits,” dispelled such speculation when the harmony started traveling again through sonorities both strange and familiar.

They closed with a high-intensity electric tune, “#1 Hit Record,” and encored with a rippling instrumental, “Water Song.” All in all, Hot Tuna showed why their fans have stuck with them all these years.

—Glenn Weiser

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