Iron Horse, Northampton
Oct. 22, 7 p.m.
$35 advance $40 door
Number 54 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists, Jorma Kaukonen has inspired string players with his innovative Piedmont style fingerpicking for more than a half-century. A founding member of the Jefferson Airplane (with whom he played from 1965 to 1996, the Washington, DC-born guitarist has continued to collaborate with its bass player, and his high school buddy, Jack Cassidy, as Hot Tuna, since 1969. Kaukonen’s solo albums have revealed a different side of his musical persona.
“People ask me about the difference between a Hot Tuna album and a Jorma album,” said Kaukonen by telephone. “Jack and I play songs but, with Hot Tuna, the interplay between two old buddies –Jack and me – is what it’s about too.”
Kaukonen released “Ain’t in No Hurry (Red House),” his first solo album in six years, and his fifteenth overall, in February 2015. “I’m not prolific,” he said, “but I get it done.”
In addition to originals, the CD includes masterfully-played versions of the Depression-era “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and a risqué, pre-Gospel tune by Thomas A. Dorsey, “The Terrible Operation.” “Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me” features lyrics by Woody Guthrie set to music by Kaukonen and producer/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell.
“Jim Egan, who wrote the title song,” explained Kaukonen, “meant it to be about people who reach a certain age and are enjoying where they are but it’s a great metaphor for all kinds of things.”
Jack Cassidy plays bass on an electric reworking of Hot Tuna’s 1970s tune, “Bar Room Crystal Ball.”
Kaukonen said, “When I wrote it, it started as an acoustic song. Larry [Campbell], [his wife] Teresa [Williams], and I have been occasionally playing acoustic gigs together. It worked well during our shows so I wanted to re-record it. We recorded everything but the bass part. We were getting ready to have a friend of mine do a bass part but I realized that the only person to do the job was Jack. I called him up. Here’s how the conversation went. ‘Hey, Jack, I’m recording a new album and redoing ‘Bar Room Crystal Ball.’ I want you to play the bass part.’ Jack goes, ‘Well, Jorma, you know, I think me playing on a Jorma solo album is blurring the line between Hot Tuna and you.’ He went on like that for a while. Then, I said, ‘Jack, I played on your album’ and he said, ‘Okay’.”
He continued. “Of course, there was my usual cast of characters [on the CD]I play with [drummer] Justin [Guip], Larry, Teresa, and [mandolinist] Barry Mitterhoff all the time. Myron Hart, the bass player, is my neighbor, my buddy, and my guitar tech. It was a family affair. Larry is a monster player on a dozen instruments but, with him, it’s all about the song.”
Despite his mastery of the guitar, Kaukonen also focuses more on enhancing each song than on spotlighting his virtuosic playing, “I’m not a trickster,” he explained. “I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, and I’m a good player, but I’m not a shredder. I’ve got licks but that’s not my thing. I’ve always been concerned with tone and the song. I didn’t think about that when I was a kid. I just tried to play stuff but, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that what works for me is being clean.”
The son of a member of the US Foreign Service, born on Dec. 23, 1940, Kaukonen spent his early years in the Philippines. Returning to Washington, DC, at 16, he became absorbed by the area’s bluegrass scene. “I started out playing bluegrass,” he said. “Some of my high school friends played and, because of them, I went to bluegrass festivals and got to see the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse and the Louvin Brothers. The Country Gentlemen were playing at the Shamrock Tavern. They were “our” band – our local band. We took it for granted – that was the scene in the Chesapeake Bay area – but, looking back at it, how cool was that?”
With the electrifying sounds of Chicago blues also drawing his attention, Kaukonen formed a high school band, The Triumphs, with Jack Cassidy, in 1957. “Jack goes for the melody without losing the groove. That’s his magic. He’s a very melodic player. He listened to so many jazz players when he was a kid but he’s a groove player too.”
Kaukonen’s musical vision continued to expand. While attending Antioch College, a friend, Ian Buchanan introduced him to the fingerstyle playing of Rev. Gary Davis. Soon after arriving in New York, to work a co-op job, in 1960, Kaukonen met the influential bluesman. “[Davis] is one of the most important musicians of the late-twentieth century,” he said, “not just because of his guitar playing, but also because of his spirit as an artist, a person, and a musician. He was certainly an important muse to me when I was younger and, in my respects, still is. That said, I’m not a Rev. Gary Davis specialist. We could do a whole article about the differences in technique – he played with two fingers and I play with three – but there’s no question that he’s influenced me so much, whether I sound like him or not. The power of his music and his personality, as a lover of life, I couldn’t get enough of that. I still can’t.”
Transferring to Santa Clara University, in 1962 (later graduating with a degree in sociology), Kaukonen wasted no time becoming involved with San Francisco’s thriving music community. During his first weekend, he met Janis Joplin, Paul Kantner, and soon-to-be Grateful Dead founders Jerry Garcia and Ron “Pigpen’ McKernan.
“San Francisco is fifty miles from Santa Clara,” he said, “but it didn’t matter. It was all about the Beats; this was before hippies and psychedelia. The influence of the Beats as a literary and cultural movement was powerful to my friends and me.”
Although he initially worked as a guitar teacher, and performed solo, Kaukonen joined Kantner in a new band, the Jefferson Airplane, that he was forming with drummer Skip Spence and vocalists Marty Balin and Signe Anderson. He recruited Cassidy to play bass. Soon afterwards, Anderson would be replaced by Grace Slick and Spence by Spencer Dryden.
He would remain with the psychedelic rock group until 1971 and return for a reunion tour in 1996. He recently celebrated the band’s 50th anniversary at the Lockn’ Music Fest in Arrington, VA.
“I had a really great time,” he said, “playing with Jack and some of my pals. Check the band out – Jack and me, obviously, Justin Guip on drums, and Larry Campbell, with Teresa Williams singing. Rachel Price from Lake Street Dive sang lead on three songs and harmony on others. I love her to pieces, her band too. Jim Pierson sang some of Marty Balin’s songs and added to three-part harmonies. G.E. Smith played twelve-string guitar. We did a whole set of Airplane material. How lucky can one get?”
Kaukonen continues to share his experiences and knowledge with students at his Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp open March to November. “We’re pulling to the end of our eighteenth year,” he said. “It’s a beautiful, 126-acre farm in southeast Ohio. We’ve got a 250-seat theater. I get some of the most amazing musicians in the world to come to my ‘living room’ and play, lots of times I get to sit in with them. We offer a venue for people who love music and an opportunity for them to be surrounded by nothing else for four days.”