Partners in Time

Stewart Oksenhorn
Hot Tuna photographed in San Jose, CA
Retna LTD | Jay Blakesberg

Jorma Kaukonen observes that he and Jack Casady, his partner in Hot Tuna, could hardly be more different in personality. Casady is fastidious, analytical; of himself, Kaukonen says, I guess impulsive is as good a word as any.To illustrate the different temperaments, Kaukonen says that Casady were he not asleep on a tour bus that had just rolled through Wichita, headed for eastern Colorado would be able to pin down the exact date that the two played their first gig together. The best Kaukonen can do is remember the place the Cafe Rendezvous, in their shared hometown of Washington, D.C. and the atmosphere: A seedy little bar. I was living with my grandparents at the time, and they would not have been pleased.As far as date, the closest Kaukonen can come is springtime. Nineteen-fifty-eight. As in, fifty years ago, to the season.For five decades, give or take a few weeks, Kaukonen and Casady have been partners in music. That first gig was performed without a name at least not one Kaukonen can remember but shortly after, they formed the Triumphs, with Kaukonen and Casady both playing guitar. In the mid-60s, Kaukonen, who had moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1962, tried out for a rock band which would become the Jefferson Airplane. Passing the audition, he summoned Casady to join the band, as a bassist. While the Airplane became the most commercially successful of the San Francisco 60s acts, it wasnt enough for the two so they formed a side project, Hot Tuna, which specialized in a traditional, blues-and-folk-oriented style, as a balance to the Airplanes electric, sometimes futuristic wanderings.And for nearly 40 years, with insignificant little breaks here and there, they have carried on as Hot Tuna. Bandmates have come and gone, as have musical approaches: For some years in the 70s, their small-scale acoustic project was transformed into an electric rock show, and Hot Tuna earned a reputation for playing some of the loudest, longest concerts on Earth. More recently, they both pared things down, and also diversified. When Hot Tuna now a quartet that includes mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Erik Diaz performs tonight at Belly Up, the band will alternate between acoustic folk-blues, and electric blues-rock.

When Kaukonen, who is 67, and Casady, four years younger, first met, in 1955, the former was not playing music yet. But the mutual friend who brought them together, Mike Oliveri, was a musician, a lover of old-timey tunes, so when they started spending time together, music naturally became a part of the friendship. Casady was interested in the instrumental side of things, and Kaukonen wanted to sing, so the fit was perfect. Or, almost perfect: Casady was initially enamored of jazz, but that was overwhelmed by the tidal wave that was rock n roll.Just how far back the partnership dates is indicated by the material they performed. At first, it was blues-rock Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley. But then the big, new thing came along, so the Triumphs worked some of Buddy Hollys songs into their repertoire.Though both had a pure love for music, their intentions in playing it were not so pure. We started looking for gigs immediately, said Kaukonen. And a lot of that had to do with the excitement of underage drinking. You could drink beer and wine in D.C. back then at 18 but we werent even old enough for that. The music, not surprisingly, reflected that interest: What we played sounded nothing like the originals. People used to ask me if we had stage fright, and now I say, we should have.Kaukonen did some time at college, at Ohios Antioch, and in New York City; in both places he developed an infatuation with fingerstyle folk-blues, especially the Rev. Gary Davis, who remains a favorite. Casady stayed mostly in D.C., and landed gigs backing the likes of Ray Charles and Little Anthony & the Imperials.

In San Francisco, Kaukonen hooked up with guitarist Paul Kantner and singer Marty Balin. Their early group featured a stand-up bassist, but they were looking for something more in tune with the coming psychedelic era. Searching for an electric bassist for Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen called back to D.C., and invited Casady to come along for the flight. It would be a memorable one. Embracing the possibilities of electronic instruments and psychedelic drugs, the Airplane scored international hits with the 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow and the songs White Rabbit and Somebody to Love.Surrealistic Pillow also featured Embryonic Journey, Kaukonens solo acoustic guitar piece. It was a reminder that, as far as the Airplane was taking music out to the frontier, their guitarist was also interested in maintaining his roots. He and Casady, occasionally with Balin, started playing more rooted music on the side.It wasnt a band. More like an alter-ego, playing straight-up rock n roll, rather than the more complex stuff we played in the Airplane, said Kaukonen. The Airplane at the time had fallen into a format and you did that in any band; we did that in Hot Tuna. But we wanted a little less intellectual superstructure. We just wanted to play rock n roll. We just lived to play music back then.In 1969, Kaukonen and Casady formalized their side project with the debut album, released under the name Hot Tuna, that did exceedingly well for an acoustic blues recording. Over the next several years, the Airplane went through a magnified version of the usual rock-band dramas, and by the end of 1972, Kaukonen and Casady were in Hot Tuna, and not Jefferson Airplane, or its other offshoot, Jefferson Starship. Over time, Hot Tuna would incorporate their longings for both folk and rock.Its funny when you think of it, said Kaukonen. We werent the only band playing long and loud. But we started out, recording-wise, as a straight acoustic band. But rock n roll is very seductive, with all the gear you can use. And we certainly had our share of it. Hot Tuna played a recent gig at Cains Ballroom in Tulsa, their first appearance at the venue since 1974. Kaukonen was amazed to see a photo of that show, hanging at Cains. It looked like the Grateful Deads Wall of Sound, he said, referring to the mammoth rig the Dead carted around in the mid-70s. Now, with the quality of todays sound systems, you dont have to be that loud. In fact, it sounds better if youre not so loud.In the late 70s, as Jorma dealt with what he refers family health problems, and Casady formed the modern-rock band SVT, Hot Tuna took a break. But Kaukonen says the two never officially split, recognizing that the partnership had plenty of life left.From our point of view, we never broke up, said Kaukonen, who began performing with Casady again in 1983. Jack and I are different kinds of guys. But weve never had an argument; we never have band meetings. We respect each other as musicians and as people.

Kaukonen pursues other interests in addition to the seemingly never-ending Hot Tuna. For just over a decade, he and his wife, Vanessa, have run the Fur Peace Ranch music camp in southeast Ohio, where they live. Kaukonen, who gave guitar lessons before joining Jefferson Airplane, has grown increasingly devoted to teaching and running the camp. Fur Peace now operates from March through November, and Kaukonen spends several months of weekends giving hands-on training. The Ranch features a 200-seat concert hall, and the concerts are the subject of a weekly NPR program. (The performances can be accessed at Kaukonens musical identity outside of Hot Tuna continues to expand. In 2002, he went way back to his roots for Blue Country Heart, an all-acoustic album of folk tunes inspired by Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, who was popular in the 1920s and is often considered the first country-music superstar. The album, featuring such stellar pickers as Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Bla Fleck, earned a Grammy nomination, and has become revered as a modern string-music classic. Kaukonen followed with last years Stars in My Crown, which was more expansive in sound and style.Kaukonen is gearing up to record his next album, with sessions slated for July. He hopes to have Larry Campbell, known as the guitarist from Bob Dylans band, and Phil Lesh & Friends, producing, and he hopes to record at the upstate New York studio of former Band member Levon Helm. Kaukonen said he would love to record something along the lines of Blue Country Heart, but says that is a longshot the fact that those players were all available may be an instance of lightning striking only once.Kaukonen will have to be satisfied with his ranch, and commemorating the 50th anniversary of one of the longest-running partnerships in music history. And when Casady wakes up and lets him know just when that anniversary is, hell get to it.Im a lucky guy, because I get to do all these things, he said.Hot Tuna performs at 10 p.m. tonight at Belly


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