(NOTE: Win a pair of tickets to this show here).
It’s a musical partnership that has lasted for 57 years. Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady began playing together as Washington, D.C. high schoolers in 1958. They were both members of one of the greatest rock bands of the ’60s, Jefferson Airplane, and, in 1969, formed a bluesy side project, Hot Tuna, that endures to this day.
“For me to get together with Jack, even if I haven’t done something with him for a month or two, it’s like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes,” says Kaukonen, 74.
An electric trio version of Hot Tuna, also featuring drummer Justin Guip, comes to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on July 16, on a double bill with Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam, which plays songs of the great jazz-rock group Traffic (which Mason co-founded) as well as some of Mason’s post-Traffic material.
“Whenever you mention Traffic, for better or worse the first word that comes to my mind is Stevie Winwood, because of the sound of his voice,” says Kaukonen. “But once you get beyond that … what a great band, everybody in the band, fantastic stuff. You know, our direction at the time (with Jefferson Airplane) was kind of different from them, but they were just outstanding, in my opinion, at that moment. Modern rhythm and blues.”
Kaukonen says they have not yet talked about the possibility of doing a song or two together at NJPAC. “You know, I have a little theater myself (Fur Peace Station in Meigs County, Ohio), and my thing, when I run into people at shows, or at my theater, is: Look, if there’s an opportunity to play, count me in, but if it interferes with the flow of your show, my feelings will not be hurt, ’cause I get that. So my mind is open, and if he wants to do something, we will absolutely do it.”
Fur Peace Station is part of Fur Peace Ranch, which offers instrumental workshops and also has an art gallery. It’s now in its 18th year.
“I’m not there all the time, but I’m there most of the time,” says Kaukonen. “And we’re open from March through November. I’ve been working a lot, but I’ve also been at the ranch a lot.
“The synchronicity of my life has really been great. Sometimes my daughter would like me not to work so much. But I’ve encouraged her to realize that her horseback riding and a lot of other stuff is contingent on me working. So she gets that.”
In addition to playing with Hot Tuna, Kaukonen also records his own albums and tours behind them. Barry Mitterhoff of Scotch Plains often plays mandolin with him on his solo projects, and in Hot Tuna as well.
Kaukonen started working with Mitterhoff after recording his 2002 Blue Country Heart album with Nashville session stars such as Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, who weren’t available to tour.
“Sally Van Meter, a great dobro player, hooked me up with Barry, and we just hit it off at the beginning,” says Kaukonen. “Barry brings so much to the musical table for a guy like me. I’m not a schooled musician. I know a lot of stuff because I’ve been doing it for a long time. But Barry has some very, very sophisticated insights, which he shares with me constantly, so I’m always learning new ways to play chords, new ideas about harmony.
“Can anybody other than me hear the difference? That’s not for me to say. But thanks to Barry, over the last 12 years or so, I’ve been learning tons of stuff, and he’s always just a great joy to play with, and he’s a funny guy, of course, and just a brilliant musician.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of Jefferson Airplane. While there are no plans for an extensive reunion, in part because Grace Slick is no longer performing, Kaukonen and Casady will present a set of Jefferson Airplane music with guests such as guitarists G.E. Smith and Larry Campbell and singers Rachael Price (of Lake Street Dive) and Teresa Williams at the Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, Va., on Sept. 11.
“Now, Rachael and Teresa don’t sound like Grace,” says Kaukonen. “They sound like themselves. Which is exactly what I wanted. We’re not trying to clone Jefferson Airplane songs; then you’ve got to get the Jefferson Airplane together. So hopefully we’re going to have a wacky and entertaining take on some songs by a great band that I was fortunate enough to be a member of.”