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River of time has been kind to Jorma Kaukonen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesJorma Kaukonen is featured, along with Robben Ford and Ruthie Foster, in the Guitar Blues concert Wednesday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN ” Having interviewed in recent weeks a sizable crop of veteran musicians, and then seen their Aspen performances, I’ve grown slightly tired and bored with the old-guy jokes and stories. The fact that most of these guys (Tom Rush, John McEuen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Chris Hillman) are still playing as well as, or maybe better than they did 40 years ago, makes it all good, but yeah, I get it: You used to be young, and now you’re not. Dude, we see the gray hair and the paunch.

Jorma Kaukonen, 68, is right there with this crowd in age. But the singer-guitarist ” best known, depending on your tastes, for his psychedelic licks in the Jefferson Airplane, or for his more rustic picking in the remarkably enduring Hot Tuna ” never mentioned age (or his faulty memory, how much things have changed in the music business, etc.) during our conversation. Kaukonen has made some concessions to advancing years: Hot Tuna, once known for playing their electric-blues sets as loud as anyone, and as loud as anyone could stand, has toned it way down, and generally concentrates on their acoustic material. (Their scheduled Belly Up Aspen appearance, May 21, is billed as an acoustic gig.)

But in most respects, Kaukonen still gets after it like a fresh-faced player. At his last Aspen appearance, last spring with Hot Tuna, he appeared robust and in top spirits ” definitely not someone handing out “ain’t I old” shtick. (Though it must be said, when it comes to youthful glee, even Kaukonen paled next to his long-time partner, bassist Jack Casady ” only 64 ” who was literally running around in circles, so enthused was he. “He does that every night,” chuckled Kaukonen.) On the new album “River of Time,” released earlier this month, Kaukonen’s vocal range is limited, but the sense of enjoyment he’s having ” especially in the musical exchange with drummer Levon Helm, producer/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and vocalist Teresa Williams ” is palpable. The album title may seem to nod toward a musician facing his end, but more indicative of the album’s emotional tone are such upbeat and satisfied numbers like “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” and “Nashville Blues.” Want to feel embarrassed over your own crankiness? Read Kaukonen’s generous liner notes to “River of Time.”



When Kaukonen swings back into Aspen on Wednesday, he won’t be relying on the same tricks he began learning as a kid in Washington, D.C., obsessed with the finger-picking blues of the Rev. Gary Davis, nor the fiery rock ‘n’ roll he picked up on the San Francisco ’60s scene. He has placed himself in unfamiliar company: The concert, dubbed Guitar Blues, features co-headliners Robben Ford, a monster guitarist whose blues comes with a jazz-fusion twist; and Ruthie Foster, whose voice reveals soul and folk influences. Before the tour ” put together by Columbia Artists, which manages all three ” Kaukonen had played a few shows with Foster, and never met Ford. He embraced the chance to tour among new company.

“It’s nice to play with different people because they turn you on to different things,” said Kaukonen, whose momentary lapse of geographic orientation had to do not with age, but the itinerant nature of all touring musicians. (After a second, he placed himself outside Detroit.) “Ingesting the chemistry of new people ” that’s always interesting.”




Kaukonen says he has been watching Ford closely with the specific hope of absorbing some jazz lessons. “Robben knows how to manipulate those jazz charts so well,” he said. “He actually read the Mickey Baker chord book. I just put mine under my pillow and slept on it.”

The show opens with solo sets by Foster and Kaukonen. Ford then takes the stage with his band, with Foster and Kaukonen joining for an extended electric set. The concerts have been closing with all three onstage for an encore of Bob Dylan covers.

This spring, Kaukonen returns to the more familiar ground of Hot Tuna, with a small handful of electric dates and a longer acoustic tour scheduled. The band comes with more than 35 years of history, but the core of Kaukonen and Casady goes back further; the two jammed as teenagers in the D.C. band, the Triumphs. Even that relationship allows for growth: When they perform in Aspen, in May, the bill will also include Loudon Wainwright, and Kaukonen intends to have Hot Tuna collaborate with the singer-songwriter.

While Kaukonen is touring with Guitar Blues, Casady too is expanding. He is touring starting next month as a member of Moonalice, a band that includes guitarist GE Smith and former Hot Tuna member Pete Sears.

Kaukonen attributes the longevity of his partnership with Casady partly to their practice of engaging in other projects, and coming back to Hot Tuna refreshed. “There’s just always something new, and we always allow it to happen,” he said. But there has also been a significant offstage strategy.

“We joke about this: We’ve never had a band meeting,” said Kaukonen. “Nothing is worse in this business than a band meeting. Nothing good can come of that.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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