Jorma Kaukonen is driven to play improvisational roots music like a bootlegger destined for the state border. His passion for jamming blues, country, folk, gospel and good old rock ‘n’ roll forced him to leave Jefferson Airplane in 1972 to pursue Hot Tuna full time. The split came four years after forming the back-to-roots band with Airplane bassist Jack Casady, Kaukonen’s friend since high school.
While the Airplane — which was named after Kaukonen’s roots-inspired nickname, Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane — has long since crashed, Hot Tuna is more popular than ever, thanks to a legion of young jam fans who discovered the band on three Further Festivals with surviving members of the Grateful Dead. The Dead has been friends with Kaukonen since the ’60s trip of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene. Like many other pioneers of the Haight’s psychedelic rock sound, including members of the Airplane, the Dead and Janis Joplin, Kaukonen got his start playing folk clubs. After he joined the Airplane in 1965, he convinced Casady to head West from their hometown of Washington, D.C. Two years later, such Airplane hits as “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” rocketed the group to superstardom.
But both Kaukonen and Casady loved the blues and other roots music too much to let them go for good, so Hot Tuna — originally named Hot Shit much to RCA Records’ chagrin — was born with Airplane vocalist Marty Balin and drummer Spencer Dryden occasionally sitting in between mothership gigs. In 1970, Hot Tuna released its self-titled RCA debut, a live acoustic outing with harmonica player Will Scarlet.
The followup, 1971’s “First Pull Up Then Pull Down,” featured drummer Sammy Piazza and Jefferson Airplane’s electric violinist Papa John Creach. This lineup spawned the ’70s live anthem “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” and the dichotomous acoustic and electric Hot Tuna sets.
For 1972’s “Burgers” record, the band switched to the Airplane’s RCA-distributed Grunt Records. Two years later, Hot Tuna’s “The Phosphorescent Rat” and Kaukonen’s Casady-produced solo debut, “Quah,” were released on Grunt. After a couple more albums, including the acclaimed 1976 effort “Hoppkorv,” and hundreds of epic acoustic and electric shows, Hot Tuna called it quits in 1978.
Right after Kaukonen released 1979’s “Jorma,” the tattooed singer-guitarist went new wave with the San Francisco-based band Vital Parts. Casady also materialized in a new wave outfit called SVT. But both projects were short lived, and the longtime musical partners reunited in 1983 for a concert that was followed a year later by Hot Tuna’s Relix Records debut, “Splashdown,” featuring a 1975 radio performance.
Relix, the label offshoot of the New York fanzine dedicated to the Haight-Ashbury and jam band scenes, since has released several live Hot Tuna records and a handful of Kaukonen solo recordings, including 1984’s “Too Hot To Handle,” 1995’s “The Land of Heroes,” 1996’s “Christmas” and the recent “Too Many Years,” Hot Tuna, which now includes vocalist-guitarist-mandolinist Michael Falzarano, keyboardist-accordionist Pete Sears and drummer Harvey Sorgen, also can be heard on “And Furthermore,” a new live outing on Grateful Dead Records captured during the 1998 Further Festival tour.
Kaukonen’s longtime relationship with the Dead also has made him a frequent contributor to Phil Lesh & Friends, the rotating allstar outfit headed by the Dead’s legendary bassist. Kaukonen stands out on Phil Lesh & Friends’ recent debut recording, “And Love Will See You Through.” He nails a superb ragtime version of the Dead’s “Dupree Diamond Blues.” The two-CD live disc also contains “I Am the Light of this World,” one of several Rev. Gary Davis covers Kaukonen has performed over the years.
When not busy with Hot Tuna, Phil Lesh & Friends or his trio, which also features Falzarano and Sears, Kaukonen heads the Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp in Darwin, Ohio. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Southeast Ohio, the camp teaches various roots guitar techniques and boasts an allstar faculty that has included Casady, Falzarano, Arlo Guthrie, John Hammond, Chris Smither, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, Rory Block and G.E. Smith. For more information, check out the website furpeaceranch.com.
While still on the road with Phil Lesh & Friends and Bob Dylan last month, just before another Hot Tuna tour kicked off, Kaukonen spoke with me about the growing popularity of his beloved roots music on stage, on record and at his 119-acre guitar camp. By the way, Kaukonen will turn 59 on Dec. 23, so send him a merry birthday e-mail via the above site or www.hottuna.com.
So Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane, why has Hot Tuna been cooking so long, yet the Airplane crashed?
Well, gosh, I don’t know. Good fortune? The blessings of God. I guess a lot of it had to do — I mean, for me — I just had to pursue my own voice, which was Hot Tuna. I’ve been very fortunate, of course, but I think the nature of roots music just is a little more durable than some pop stuff. And I don’t mean that in a judgmental kind of way. I feel that my favorite music was recorded in the ’20s. I can’t hardly remember anything recorded in the ’80s.
I think the music speaks for itself. I’m not sure it has that much to do with me. Although being alive helps. And I am alive.
Very much so. And very busy. It’s good to see. Comment on how you’ve been buddies with Jack Casady for more than 40 years.
Well, Jack is not even arguably my oldest friend. We were in the same high school together. I didn’t know him in junior high school, but we went to the same junior high school. Our paths threw us together at an early age. When I asked him to come out and play in the Airplane, we just locked up in some bizarre way. It’s so odd. I think the both of us marvel at this too. We just seem to be able to get into each other’s musical head.
You’ve also been with friends of members of the Grateful Dead for more than 30 years. How has that relationship, such as playing at each of the Further Festivals, increased the visibility of Hot Tuna and your trio work with Hot Tuna’s Michael Falzarano and Pete Sears?
The Grateful Dead, in my opinion, are one of the most amazing musical phenomenons of our century. They’re just so durable either as themselves or as these sub groups that they comprise. The music has just become part of our culture. Having said that, when we got to do the Further Festival with various members of the Dead and The Other Ones and whatever you want to call the Dead family, it turned us onto a lot of people that I think we’re aware of us but never really listened to us before. And they liked us too. It’s no question that it’s helped us a lot.
Pages:Next Page »