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Arts & Entertainment

Hot Tuna Serving Up Two Nights of Musical Splendor at The Capitol Theatre

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November 29, 2022

By W.B. King–

Living in places like Pakistan and the Philippines as a kid, Jorma Kaukonen’s perspective on stateside life skewed a bit differently than that of his peers. This unique perspective, in part, would eventually give rise to a genre-bending approach to singing and guitar playing that continues to capture the imagination of music lovers worldwide.

“My family was sort of non-traditional—being second generation Americans. When I have Thanksgiving with my friends whose families have been in this country forever, it’s just different,” Kaukonen told The Hudson Independent via phone on Black Friday.

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“We had the bird and the stuffing and all that kind of stuff—sometimes ham but it was struggling to play American catch up on some levels,” he continued. “I’m thankful [this year] for everyone being healthy and still being able to go on the road and play music productively.”

The Kaukonen family globetrotted due to the father’s position in the State Department. Their home base was near Jorma’s birthplace, Washington, D.C., where a singular event changed his musical flight path. “The first time I really focused on music was when we moved to this house in Chevy Chase, D.C., and in the attic there was a hand cranked Victrola—there was one record on the turntable: ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’” he reflected. “I think the mechanical coolness got me to fire it up. It was sort of magical that these sounds would come out of this gadget.”

Hearing songs of all sorts in the Kaukonen household wasn’t an anomaly, but more so commonplace. “We always had a piano. My dad played violin and recorder—that little wood flute thing,” he said of his father who had Finnish roots and his mom who had Russian Jewish ancestry. “My mother played piano and sang. They didn’t make a big deal about it—it’s just what they did. I was surrounded by it.” His older brother would also become a musician.

In and around 1953 while the family was stationed in Pakistan, Kaukonen had another musical awakening. “I don’t even know where it came from but we had Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ on a 78 [record] but this wasn’t a hand-cracked Victrola, it was one of those electric ones,” he said. “So, my first record was A, a rock-and-roll record and B, a rock-and-roll guitar record.”

It’s No Secret

Flash forward to October 13, 2022, Kaukonen was in Los Angeles with bassist Jack Casady and singer Grace Slick, the surviving members of Jefferson Airplane. The musicians were on hand to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“We’ve been in the business for a long time and we’ve gotten some accolades along the way,” he said, noting that Jefferson Airplane received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2016 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1996. “You don’t start out thinking about that stuff—it would have never crossed my mind. For example, I didn’t even know the Airplane got a Grammy nomination around the time of Surrealistic Pillow [1967, Best New Artist]. It didn’t concern me. I didn’t realize it until the Lifetime Grammy thing and I was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’”

As the years have clicked on, Kaukonen said these milestone events take on a new meaning. “It’s something you can share with your kids and your contemporaries and will remain there after you’re gone—and wow, that’s really pretty cool,” he shared.

Where Jefferson Airplane’s star sits on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is auspicious—around the corner from the Mark Twain Hotel where the band stayed while working on their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off that includes the song, “It’s No Secret.”

Calling it a “full circle” experience, he said in 1965 the band had simple pursuits: making music, looking for cheap places to eat and just trying to survive. “Now here I am a block away from that same place getting a star on the Walk of Fame, who knew?” he said.

‘Well, Nickel is a Nickel, I said, Dime is a Dime’

There was a long runway leading to his seven-year tenure with Jefferson Airplane, which produced hit tunes like “White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love” and “Volunteers.”

While studying at Antioch College in 1960, Kaukonen, who had been playing guitar for a few years, met a new pal, Ian Buchanan, an intrepid troubadour who introduced him to the recordings of iconic blues musicians like Reverend Gary Davis.

“Ian, may he rest in peace, is even more important than Reverend Gary Davis, because he opened my world and first taught me how to play finger-style guitar, but the Reverend has been an incredibly strong muse in my life for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is his incredible prowess as a guitar artist but also just the joy in all his songs,” he continued. “I mean a song of his like ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ doesn’t surround you with misery and I don’t know why that is because it’s not an upbeat song. I always play ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ and after paying homage to the actual content of the song, it makes me smile.”

By 1962, Kaukonen headed further west to the San Francisco Bay Area, enrolling at Santa Clara University. He eventually ran across future Jefferson Airplane founding members Marty Balin and Paul Kanter as well as other artists, like Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin.

“They were all so welcoming to an outsider and as we know that isn’t always the case. Jerry was always such a good guy. Gosh, he’s been gone for more than a quarter of a century now,” he said. “Back in the day starting out, Jerry was married and had a kid at the time, so he kind of became a de facto adult for the rest of us who were still in school and didn’t have families like that.”

During those early college years, Kaukonen gigged as often as he could but he rarely got paid—and if he did, it was “next to nothing.” To make ends meet, he began teaching on the side at Benner Music Company in San Jose. “You could support yourself giving guitar or banjo lessons,” he recalled of that time period when everything seemed to be happening so fast. “I met Janis in 1962,” he shared. “I was just a kid going to college and met her the first weekend I was at school—there was a hootenanny and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Noting that Santa Clara University was a “conservative place,” Kaukonen said he was “hands down one of the weirdest guys there.” As such, he gravitated to eccentric people in the scene like Joplin who often needed a guitarist. “We were springing from the same well.”

While the term “superstar” wasn’t a part of the vernacular at the time, Kaukonen immediately knew he was in the presence of greatness. “She was very special. We were just kids doing what we did, but we clicked.”

The new friends would go on to record many standards such as “Hesitation Blues,” “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” and “Trouble in Mind,” among others. The low-key sessions were eventually released in bootleg form as The Typewriter Tape (recorded in 1964); the title was derived from his then-wife’s audible typewriting heard on the tracks.

Santa Clara University was situated about 50 miles from San Francisco—where musicians and artists were beginning to congregate on the regular. For Kaukonen and like-minded friends, this often meant long rides on the Greyhound bus as most kids didn’t have cars. Musical collaborations, he said, were a mélange of happenstance and kismet.

“These moments you spent with each other as friends and artists really had to do with who was going where and who could get there. It was a really great community. There was so much going on in the San Francisco Bay area back then,” he continued. “It was a cool city but also a cheap place to live. It was easy to be a marginally paid artist of any sort. Everyone knew each other and at some point everyone was going to need somebody.”

Embryonic Journey

By 1965, fellow classmate Paul Kanter approached Kaukonen about joining a group being formed by Marty Balin, who like Kanter, was from the folk movement, whereas Kaukonen was self-described as a “country blues” purist. He was eventually convinced to join up. As names for the group were being bandied about, Kaukonen added one to the mix.

“One name Marty offered was ‘The Other Side,’ but none of the names really resonated with me. I just threw out ‘Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane,’ a name my friend Steve Talbott tagged on to me, and much to my surprise they thought it was a great name for that band. It could have been a lot worse,” he said, laughing, noting the dropping of “Blind Thomas.”

As the band progressed, so did Kaukonen’s songwriting abilities. Referencing Garcia, who is credited on the band’s sophomore effort Surrealist Pillow as “musical and spiritual advisor,” Kaukonen said the Grateful Dead singer and guitarist became a mentor of sorts. The illustrious album would feature the first of Kaukonen’s magically, masterful guitar instrumentals, “Embryonic Journey.”

“I came into the Airplane basically as a solo artist. Jerry had played in bluegrass bands, jug bands and rock and roll bands,” he said, noting that he proudly played the late artist’s song “Sugaree” at the historic concert, Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia (2015). “So when I questioned what my role would be as a lead guitar player with Jefferson Airplane, he helped me to define myself at an early age.”

While Jefferson Airplane initially had a bass player, the position soon opened up. When the discussion turned to who could fill the spot, Kaukonen knew the man for the job: John William “Jack” Casady. While a few years older than Casady, the two attended the same high school.

“There is just something about old friends. We met in ’56 and started playing together in ’58. He is exactly the same guy. Attention to detail for everything—he was that guy then and he is that guy now. In our [high school] band [The Triumphs] he played lead guitar and I played rhythm guitar and sang,” he continued. “Jack, from the very beginning, was one of these guys who wanted to be independent. He wanted to find steady employment and there was a boatload of guitar players in D.C. back then—obviously the most memorable was Danny Gatton who said [to Jack] at one point we need a bass player.”

Casady’s unique bass playing didn’t only shine on Jefferson Airplane albums but he also often recorded with other quintessential musicians of the era, including playing on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ that appeared on Electric Ladyland (1968).

“He is a very interesting bass player who brings a lot to the table,” Kaukonen said. “His attention to groove and meter is rock solid. He is also incredibly lyrical—many bass players aren’t. He can play all these beautiful lines but he never loses the groove.”

If You Don’t Know Jorma, You Don’t Know Jack

During Jefferson Airplane’s downtime in 1969, Kaukonen and Casady wanted to play gigs as much as possible and formed an offshoot band, Hot Tuna. Some 53 years later, the group, which has recorded countless  albums and has seen many players come and go, will once again return to The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. for a two night stand on December 2 and 3, 2022.

“We aren’t doing an acoustic separate set but there will be acoustic stuff of course in the show. Also, our good buddy from the [Levon Helm] Midnight Ramble Horns, Steve Bernstein, is going to be sitting in with us,” he said. “Steve is such a consummate professional—he writes his parts but he can blow and improvise, too, which Jack and I just love. So, rather than having a horn section in the band in a traditional way, it’s like having another guitar player but he doesn’t play guitar.”

Due to downtime during the pandemic, Hot Tuna was able to take a deep dive into their expansive catalog, which Kaukonen explained presented a new approach to crafting set lists. “During our [virtual] quarantine concerts, I started to bring back a lot of old songs that had sort of fallen by the wayside from a repertoire point of view,” he continued. “And so Jack and I now have a lot of new/old songs and a couple of new songs, too, but many that we are resuscitating. The audience will hear a wide spectrum of tunes that they haven’t heard in a while, but some old chestnuts, too—what would a night be without ‘Hesitation Blues?’”

The Capitol Theater is a favorite tour stop for Hot Tuna, Kaukonen noted. This is due, in large part, to the leadership of owner Peter Shapiro. The impresario is often compared to legendary concert promoter Bill Graham, who also managed Jefferson Airplane in 1967 and 1968. “They are both entrepreneurial guys who managed to make a tough business work for them because it’s not easy to be a promoter. The Cap is a beautiful venue to play. And Bill did that with The Fillmore as well,” he said. “Peter seems to me to be much more even-tempered than Bill was, which isn’t a criticism of Bill Graham because he was a good friend and managed us for a while, but his whole style was to make good use of his emotional volatility and I don’t get that from Peter. Peter is not just one of the guys because he’s done a lot for all us guys who work for him, but when you hang out with him back stage, he’s just Peter—and that would have never been the case with Bill.”

At 81, Kaukonen said his guitar playing and singing is better than at any point during his career. He credits his longevity to “healthy living on many levels” as well as a desire to continually test himself and grow as an artist.  “I don’t think I’m going to reinvent the wheel at this point in my life but I’m still learning stuff all the time and it’s just as exciting to me now as it ever was,” he said. “One of the things that I am so grateful for as an artist is that my/Hot Tuna’s audience allows me to tell my story over and over and over again and still be interested in it.”

 

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