Rock ‘n’ roll’s odd couple, Hot Tuna, plays PAC3
July 21, 2012
CARBONDALE – Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady are hardly without their differences. Kaukonen lives in southeast Ohio, a few miles from the West Virginia border; nearby, in the village of Pomeroy, population less than 2,000, is the Fur Peace Ranch, the guitar camp that Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, have run since 1998. Casady lives in Los Angeles.
“And that says it all,” Kaukonen said. But that wasn’t all: “We’re the odd couple of rock ‘n’ roll – Felix and Oscar. And I’ll leave it to you to pick who’s who.”
Despite what might be sizable personal gaps, the two have created what might be the most enduring partnership in music. The pair began playing together in 1955 – “which is a while ago,” Kaukonen, in a particularly good mood as he rolled across Oklahoma, pointed out helpfully – as teenagers in Washington, D.C. After Kaukonen moved to California, and got the call, in 1966, to join Jefferson Airplane, he recruited Casady from back East to be the group’s bassist. When the pair found that Jefferson Airplane’s intensely psychedelic style left them craving the rootsy, folk-blues sound they both adored, they formed a side project, Hot Tuna.
In the early ’70s, as Jefferson Airplane lurched through personnel and stylistic changes, the twosome fled together to focus their attention on Hot Tuna and made it a successful independent endeavor. As Hot Tuna went through its own changes, becoming more electric, experimental and notoriously loud, Kaukonen and Casady hung together at every turn. The band broke up in the late ’70s, and Kaukonen and Casady did go their separate ways, but by 1983, they had reformed.
This time it seems to be for good. Hot Tuna’s second act is about to conclude its third decade, and the group has not lost steam. In 2006, they appeared at Merlefest in North Carolina, the country’s biggest folk-music gathering. The following year they played Bonnaroo, appearing alongside Tool, the Police and the White Stripes. Last year, the band released “Steady As She Goes,” its first studio album in 20 years. The group has toured steadily, both in acoustic and electric formats; Saturday, when they perform at 8 p.m. at PAC3 in Carbondale, it will be the acoustic Hot Tuna, with longtime member Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin rounding out the trio.
“It’s interesting,” Kaukonen said of the longevity of the relationship. “We marvel at it ourselves. We discuss it, and the crux of it is, we respect each other as men and as artists.”
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“Respect” in this case isn’t some state of professional distance, where the two hold their noses for the sake of keeping a commercially viable venture together. Onstage, at least, the sparks still fly between the two. At a show a few years ago at Belly Up, Casady occasionally ran circles around the stage, dervish-like, driven by the music. Kaukonen took it in, laughed and played off it.
“That’s a magical thing,” he said of the intact chemistry. “It’s difficult to quantify. But one of the things with Jack is, you never know what he’s going to come up with. He has a huge well of extemporaneous musical vignettes. You go, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before.'”
The common vision between the two remains even though they have differing musical tastes. Kaukonen is more of the roots, folk-blues guy, focusing on traditional songs like “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “Hesitation Blues,” and original songs that stick more or less with those familiar structures. Casady has more of a jazz orientation.
“For me, it’s about the songs,” Kaukonen said. “Jack’s such an intelligent guy. He’s thinking about stuff beyond my ken, rhythmic things. I like how the flow goes.”
Kaukonen and Casady first met in the summer of 1955. Kaukonen had just returned from Pakistan, where his father had been on a diplomatic assignment. A friend of his knew Casady’s brother. Kaukonen was becoming interested in guitar and knew that Casady was a guitarist; perhaps just as important: “He had a license and a car,” Kaukonen said. The first gig they played together was a high school sorority party in a basement. They soon started getting club gigs under the name, the Triumphs.
Kaukonen went off to college, at Antioch, in Ohio, where he delved even further into music. A friend, Ian Buchanan, introduced him to the blues of the Rev. Gary Davis and the fingerstyle playing of Lonnie Johnson. Kaukonen transferred to Santa Clara University, and in California, his stance as a blues purist was converted by the electric-rock scene that was developing around San Francisco. When guitarist Paul Kantner invited him to join Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen knew who to bring in on bass.
Kaukonen said that he and Casady try not to intellectualize too much why their partnership works so well.
“We just fell into it, and we never fell out,” he said.