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| May 1-7, 2008 email@example.comThe rabbit in the wheel
Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady explain how they’ve stayed in Hot Tuna for 50 years without becoming cold fish
by Dave Kirby
It wasn’t exactly a “press day” when we caught up to Jorma Kaukonen by phone last week. Such things are dubious luxuries usually reserved for carefully handled young bands being led across the country by matronly record-company flaks checking off markets on a spreadsheet someplace. Kaukonen is a few paces past that.
No, Kaukonen was killing time at the local Harley shop nearby his Ohio ranch, getting his 2008 Fat Bob looked over before torqueing it up for a ride down to Merlefest.
“… uh, hold on… Black or silver? The black one. Yeah. Sorry, he was just asking me which oil filter to put on. I think the black goes better.”
Kaukonen has retained his decades-long affection for motorcycles, and says he takes them as much as he can to gigs. Hardly a young man anymore, we wondered how his wife felt about that.
“Oh, she’s got one too — just got a 2008 Nightster. So, she’s usually all for it. I’m not sure if I’ll be taking it out to Colorado. We may just hitch up the trailer to the bus.”
This spring’s Hot Tuna tour, which brings Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady through the state for three gigs this month, including the usual can’t-miss Fox date, marks a milestone not lost on many. This year will mark 50 years — fifty — since Kaukonen and Casady first started playing together as teenagers outside Washington, D.C., and almost 40 since Hot Tuna become a recognized franchise. Originally started as a diversion to keep Kaukonen and Casady busy in between chaotically scheduled and usually dysfunctional Jefferson Airplane tours, Tuna evolved from a side-project coffeehouse curiosity to a high-decibel power trio, characterized in the 1970s by marathon improvisational excursions and bruisingly loud shows.
Hot Tuna was the scary-smart kid’s alternative to the Dead — a little more aggro, a little less commercial, arguably more imbedded in biker culture, and still the thinking freak’s vinyl of choice.
Fired by Kaukonen’s expanding expertise in finger-style guitar and Casady’s uniquely articulated bass playing, they overlaid post-psychedelic flash atop blues and ragtime, along the lines of Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Blake. And while they weren’t the only ones who drew from that well, they remained more heavily invested in it as time went on, and especially as acoustic music became their primary focus in the early ’90s.
“We were very fortunate,” notes Casady, with whom we caught up at a tour stop in Manchester, Vt., prior to a gig with Moonalice, “that we had a platform to work from, playing some of these obscure songs from the ’20s and ’30s. This wasn’t stuff that naturally had a pop component to it. It was Americana in the purest sense, derived from blues and folk music, and it was really built around Jorma’s guitar technique.”
With the exception of a few years in the late ’70s and early ’80s when they worked apart, Kaukonen and Casady have exercised Tuna as a fluid cooperative, incorporating different musicians and eventually dividing performance time between acoustic and electric incarnations, with acoustic performances becoming predominant as the electric band went largely into stasis in the early ’90s, only just reconstituted about five or six years ago. We asked Kaukonen what the Fox show may hold.
“In the electric band, we draw from all different sources. Some of its acoustic stuff we’ve re-arranged for electric, some blues stuff… I’ve written a few new tunes in the last year we may do. We’ll probably pull from Phosphorescent Rat or America’s Choice. I always liked that period of the band.
“Most of the time we just get together at the beginning of the tour and talk it over, see what we feel like playing.”
“There is no song list ahead of time,” echoes Casady. “It could be anything, which is one of the great benefits of having such a deep catalog to draw from.”
And while the casual observer may note the band’s longevity and its living connection to the late ’60s San Francisco scene, the fact is that Hot Tuna was deep into Americana years before the alt-anything movement, and freeform, highly improvised jamming decades before the jamband scene.
By any fair assessment, Hot Tuna reached further and accomplished more over its lengthy tenure than the Airplane did, beset as it was by interpersonal conflicts, turbulent record company relations and chronic substance abuse. The Airplane was undeniably a powerful and paradigm-crashing force in last ’60s rock, but their peak influence lasted a few years at most. Tuna has plied its waters for almost four decades, outliving most of their contemporaries musically, and many of them literally.
“These are facts that a great many people do have trouble coming to grips with, I’m afraid,” Casady noted wryly. “It kind of depends who I’m talking to. When it comes to interviews, yeah, there are reporters doing an assignment who spend two minutes looking you up on the Internet, and there are a few old warhorses out there who actually know something of the history. That’s OK. It’s part of the job.”
“I was talking to my neighbor about this the other day,” says Kaukonen, who turned 67 just before last Christmas. “He’s a farmer, so he’s got a real job. But we said, y’know, we made it this far and a lot of our friends didn’t. What do you do? You make the most of it. You feel thankful. You have fun. I think this is why this has lasted so long.”
At a personal level, of course, Kaukonen and Casady are friends and musical collaborators, and both are happy — eager — to note that as this milestone year unfolds.
“Yeah, we do get a laugh out of out it,” says Kaukonen. “We’ve been buddies forever, but we’re also the odd couple. The Felix and Oscar of rock ’n’ roll.”
Casady laughed a little at that.
“I’m not sure what Jorma’s interpretation of that would be. We do have a lot in common and always have, all the way back to 1958 when we were teenagers and started playing together. But we do have different personalities. I guess I’m more of a neatnick and tinkerer. I’ve always been interested in building things, working on electronics and gadgets.
“But musically, we’ve always worked well together. The thing about Jorma is that he’s always learning, no matter what. There’s always new stuff that he’s teaching himself, new material, new ways of approaching the craft.”
Both agree that Jorma’s second project, the Fur Peace Ranch, has been central to the latter years of their musical careers. Founded by Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, in the bucolic farmland of Southeast Ohio and now in its eleventh year, the Ranch is an instructional music camp for players in different disciplines, from rock to jazz to bluegrass to country blues, with Kaukonen and many of his contemporaries providing hands-on instruction.
“Credit where it’s due,” says Kaukonen, “it’s really Vanessa that’s kept this place going all this time. I’m no businessman at all. We’ve also been really blessed to have terrific people working there and coming to do instruction. I just love it. I sit in on a lot of sessions, and still do a fair amount of instruction myself. It’s made me a better player and a better musician, absolutely.”
We were just about to sign off from our conversation with Kaukonen when the guy working on his bike made a slightly gruesome discovery.
“Deer? It’s… no, it’s a rabbit. I must have hit a rabbit sometime and didn’t notice. There’s traces of the rabbit in the wheel well.”
We tried to help ourselves but couldn’t… was it a…?
“No, it’s a tan and gray rabbit. Well, it was.”
He’s in a better place, we suggested.
“Yeah. It’s like the Dalai Lama says: it’s just the Wheel Of Life turning.”
On the Bill:
Hot Tuna will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 8, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.
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