Jorma Kaukonen: tireless rock artist

Last December, Jorma Kaukonen turned 81. His band Hot Tuna, formed in 1969, is just over half a century old. And as a solo musician, he still performs regularly live, releasing a wealth of albums, often more than one a year. Kaukonen was also a co-founder of the iconic psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s, and in the mid-1990s he and his Airplane bandmates were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, USA. United States. In short, Kaukonen is a legend.

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This year, famed New York concert venue Carnegie Hall plans to honor Kaukonen and another octogenarian legend, jazz bassist Ron Carter, who turns 85 in May. Two concerts are planned. In April, Kaukonen will perform with Hot Tuna, which he founded with bandmate and former Airplane bassist Jack Casady. And, in May, jazz maestro Carter is scheduled to perform with various musicians. They may be of different genres, but both concerts are likely to be memorable events.

Unfortunately, few of us may be able to make it to Carnegie Hall. But for Kaukonen fans, there is no shortage of music to buy, stream or download. Spotify alone owns dozens of his albums, all his 13 solo studio albums, but also countless live recordings whose list keeps growing. Then there’s Hot Tuna’s discography to explore. It’s also a list that keeps growing because Kaukonen and Casady perform inexhaustibly and release recordings of these concerts. On January 17, we had the latest, the recording of a concert they did in Berkeley, California, at the end of December.

Kaukonen’s long career has been interesting. In 1965, when he was invited to join Jefferson Airplane, he was initially hesitant. Describing himself as a country blues singer, he didn’t know how he would fit into a rock band. Country blues is a laid-back genre with finger-picked acoustic guitar accompanying the lead vocals. The Airplane intended to be an electric rock band, and as it happens, eventually evolved into one of psychedelic rock’s most famous vanguards. But young Kaukonen took the plunge, taking up the electric guitar, experimenting with electronic technologies and giving the Airplane its signature groovy, soaring sound.

This sound is best heard on live recordings of Airplane concerts. Like on Bless her little pointy head, an album recorded in 1968 at the historic Fillmore East locations in New York and Fillmore West in San Francisco (neither exist today). On the band’s version of rock me baby (originally by BB King), we hear Kaukonen’s licks, still country blues in spirit but electrified rock in his interpretation. The other memorable Airplane track noted for Kaukonen’s touch is the instrumental Embryonic journey from surreal pillow, the album Airplane from 1967.

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Kaukonen has featured many of his airplane-era songs in set-lists at his ongoing gigs, some of them in alternate acoustic form that showcase his mastery of string selection from his guitar. But what’s most remarkable is Kaukonen’s relentless ability to “keep holding on” (to borrow the title of a song by influential soul singer Curtis Mayfield). He has been recording and performing almost continuously since the early 1960s, no small feat in an industry where burnout, untimely demise and other excesses of the rock music scene often weigh on the career of many musicians.

Last year Kaukonen released The River Flows Vol. 1 & 2 Full Sessions, a set he performs with guitarist John Hurlbut, his friend and collaborator. On this album, Hurlbut sings and plays rhythm guitar while Kaukonen takes the acoustic lead. It’s a comfortable anti-stress album where the duo takes us on a journey of American roots songs and country blues. Kaukonen still plays like a virtuoso and Hurlbut sings in a relaxed and unaffected manner.

In many ways, The river is flowing is a fitting auditory accompaniment to the way we are forced to lead our lives during the pandemic years, as it is the perfect palliative for our raw nerves and stressed lives. The 22 tracks, whether openuh, the ballad of easy rider (originally by The Byrds), Bob Dylan’s Knock on heaven’s door, or Mayfield people are getting ready, are all gently performed by the duo, accompanied only by their acoustic guitars. A much needed balm.

During a recent solo concert, Kaukonen said, “We’re happy to be here, but at our age, we’re happy to be anywhere.” In his 80th decade, Kaukonen is happy to make music. He and his wife run the Fur Peace Ranch, a 126-acre venue run by Hurlbut, Ohio, where guitar camps, gigs and recordings are held. And, of course, it continues to spin tirelessly.

The list of fairs

First Beat is a column about what’s new and groovy in the music world.

@sanjoynarayan

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