Local Live Music: Jorma Kaukonen’s in no hurry
Also waiting in the wings to jam that night? Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin.
Such was the fortuitous timing and depth of talent in the San Francisco-area music scene in the early ‘60s.
“None of us were anybody back then,” says Kaukonen from his cellphone while traveling to his next gig in Asheville, N.C. “We just had a great musical community and there were so many places for us to play.”
Kaukonen later met fellow guitarist Paul Kantner and co-founded the legendary rock band the Jefferson Airplane. The band’s classic rock ‘n’ roll anthems, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” became iconic ‘60s tunes. And their performance at Woodstock in 1969 is considered one of the historic festival’s best.
“We were at our peak at Woodstock. We probably couldn’t have passed a field sobriety test, but we were a very good live band,” says Kaukonen.
It all added it up to the band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Kaukonen, who exudes a friendly, generous demeanor, was born and raised in D.C. but traveled the world with a military father, was a devoted listener of Americana roots music from an early age. He credits his parents for their diverse musical interests, including having a house full of blues, gospel, bluegrass, country, folk and classical records.
“I was lucky, I listened to my parents’ music and didn’t hate it,” he laughs.
As a high school student in the ‘50s (he graduated from D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson high school – “go Tigers!” Kaukonen says), he’d venture out to Virginia and West Virginia to catch bluegrass festivals. He took in performances by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Red Smiley and other leading bluegrass musicians of the day.
In D.C., he also met his best friend and long-time musical collaborator, Jack Casady, who mutually shared a love of traditional music. (Kaukonen later recruited his friend to head west to play bass for the newly formed Airplane.) In college, Kaukonen was exposed to the finger-picking style of the blues masters, particularly the Reverend Gary Davis, who became a major influence in his style of play.
After striking rock gold out west, and in the days before technology allowed for easy experimentation, Kaukonen mastered the electric guitar. He created a sound wholly unique to ‘60s rock and roll. But he never forgot his musical foundation. (Listen to the Airplane’s “Embryonic Journey” and you’ll hear Kaukonen sublimely blending his many musical influences. He also performed the tune at the Airplane’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.)
Even at the height of the Airplane’s success, he and Casady played traditional music before, or in-between sets, at Airplane concerts. These mini-concerts were met enthusiastically by fans and Hot Tuna was born. Eventually, the success of this side-band project, combined with recording delays and increasing internal friction within the Airplane, led Kaukonen and Casady to leave the band for good in 1972.
Hot Tuna went on to achieve widespread critical acclaim, resulting in scores of albums with a base of highly devoted followers. (Kaukonen and Casady still actively tour with their band.)
Today, in addition to maintaining an intense yearly touring schedule, Kaukonen teaches guitar at Fur Peace Ranch in the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio. Founded by his wife Vanessa in 1989, the retreat offers budding musicians the opportunity of a lifetime: to play alongside and learn from Kaukonen, Casady and other professional musicians.
Even if Kaukonen modestly describes himself to students as “an intermediate guitarist with lots of experience,” his legacy as a rock/ blues/folk guitarist are etched in granite. In addition to being a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Rolling Stone magazine named him the 16th greatest acoustic player of all time, and the 54th best rock guitarist.
Now a youthful 74, Kaukonen has eased into a calm, mellow state, reflecting a wizened acceptance of who he is and what his journey’s been about. His new solo album, “Ain’t in No Hurry” (Red House Records), reflects this mindset. In the liner notes, he writes, “The songs you hear in this album cover a lot of ground for me. Some are very old, and some quite new. From where I came from to where I am today… it is all here. Music does not happen in a vacuum.”
The album gently ambles through the rich peaks and valleys of blues, country, bluegrass and folk. It’s the kind of record one might pipe into the backyard on a warm spring or summer day as you relax with friends and cold adult beverages. The album’s river-like flow – the meticulous ebbs and tides of the sequencing of songs – is no accident either.
“When I do set lists, I look at the dynamics of it, just like a song. This is the feeling I brought to the album. I wish I could say I brought an intellectual process to it, but I just have good instincts for this. It’s cohesive. I think it worked out,” he says.
Rolling Stone magazine agrees. In their album review they officially ordained Kaukonen “a bona fide graybeard folk swami.”
Speaking of graybeards, longevity isn’t something usually attributed to rock stars. Both Joplin and Garcia, as well as many other ‘60s greats Kaukonen once played with, died young. But Kaukonen looks like he’d be just as comfortable lifting weights as finger-picking a guitar. In fact, he’s a regular gym-goer back home in Ohio, and, in a tribute to the good genes he says his parents passed along, tries to stay as physically active as they were during their long lives.
But his true secret to staying fit?
An 850-pound motorcycle.
“My wife, son and I all ride. I need to do be able to do something to lift that bike off its kick stand,” Kaukonen says, laughing.
IF YOU GO:
Who: Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna
Where: The Tally Ho Theatre, Leesburg
When: 8:30 p.m. March 5. Doors open 7:30 p.m.
- Local Live Music: Jorma Kaukonen’s in no hurry
- EDITORIAL: Diversity must come out from the shadows
- Raider alums set the pace for Hokies
- Finding room: What might get sacrificed in Loudoun’s capital budget for two new schools
- Middleburg, Distilled: Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery opens to the public