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Jeff Moehlis: Hot Tuna to Play at Lobero Theatre

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen talks about the upcoming show and his rich musical history

Jorma Kaukonen was the lead guitarist for the 1960s psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane, which is best known for the hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” from the album Surrealistic Pillow. His signature song is the instrumental “Embryonic Journey” from the same album. Other acclaimed Jefferson Airplane albums include After Bathing at Baxter’s, Crown of Creation and Volunteers.

As the 1960s wound down, Kaukonen and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady’s attention shifted to their new band Hot Tuna, which focused on acoustic and electric folk- and blues-based music.

Kaukonen also has released multiple solo albums, including 1974’s masterpiece Quah. Kaukonen continues to tour with Hot Tuna, and with his wife owns and operates the Fur Peace Ranch, which runs a yearly music and guitar camp.

Hot Tuna's Jack Casady, left, and Jorma Kaukonen will play at the Lobero Theatre on March 10.
Hot Tuna’s Jack Casady, left, and Jorma Kaukonen will play at the Lobero Theatre on March 10. (Barry Berenson photo)

Kaukonen spoke to me by phone the night after Hot Tuna played a show in Durham, N.C. They will be playing at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on March 10.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming Hot Tuna concert in Santa Barbara?

Jorma Kaukonen: This is not a typical Hot Tuna show. We have the great Charlie Musselwhite, a great bluesman, and Jim Lauderdale, a great singer-songwriter and a great player. (Guitarist) G.E. Smith is on the tour also.

We start off on the show playing five or six of our acoustic numbers, and we sort of add people as that part of the show goes on. Jim Lauderdale comes on and plays some songs; we back him up, we sing with him. Charlie comes out and does some stuff.

Then after the break we sort of do the same thing, but electrically. It’s really a lot of fun.

JM: I was reading that you once backed up Janis Joplin on guitar. How did that come about?

JK: Well, it sounds sort of like you got a gig in Janis’ band, you know, the way you talk about it like that. But the way it came about, simply, was that when I moved to California in 1962, one of the first weekends I was there I went to a hootenanny — we had hootenannies back then in San Jose, which is where I was living — and a bunch of guys and gals would come down from Berkeley and from San Francisco, and Janis was one of them.

And she was a great singer, and even though she played a little guitar, we got to talking, and she realized that I knew a lot of her Memphis Minnie stuff, and her style. So she asked me to play with her, and it was a lot of fun. And so, on a number of occasions after that, when she needed somebody in the Peninsula I would get the call.

JM: Fast-forwarding a little bit, how did you get involved with Jefferson Airplane?

JK: I was going to school at the University of Santa Clara, and Paul Kantner had dropped out the year before I got there. We’d met through a mutual friend, and he was a folkie, too. So we sort of moved in the same circles.

In 1965 he had moved to San Francisco, and he met Marty (Balin), and they were putting this band together. It wasn’t called the Airplane yet, and he asked me if I’d be involved, and I sort of agonized over this because I didn’t know what rock-‘n’-roll was anymore, you know, but I went up and I tried out. It was seductive, and it was fun. And there you go.

JM: You were at a lot of key events of the ‘60s. I was wondering if you could reminisce a little.

JK: Right, well, you know, it’s funny when you look back, because there were so many things that in retrospect seem to be sort of iconic events — the Human Be-In, Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, Altamont. I mean, all those things. It’s just what was going on in our life, and I don’t think anybody ever thought about them as being seminal events one way or the other.

Things like the Human Be-In — I was born in 1940, nothing that even vaguely approached that would have existed in the world that I grew up in. And all of a sudden, all of these extremely odd things were happening in the ‘60s, and it was like the Wizard of Oz, where it turns from black and white into color.

JM: You mentioned Woodstock. What was your Woodstock experience like?

JK: Oh, boy. You know, we had been to the site two weeks before the concert, so we saw them sort of getting it together. We just went in for our day. I think the thing that really is very difficult to describe adequately is when you stood on the stage — and I do remember this — you stood on the stage and looked out and saw that sea of people. Nothing can adequately describe that. And that feeling that the world that was sort of evolving in that moment became “real,” if you know what I mean.

JM: What were the origins of Hot Tuna?

JK: Well, Jack and I have been playing together since 1958, and we’ve been buddies — he’s my oldest buddy — and we always had something going on. It wasn’t always Hot Tuna, but we always had something going on. He and I started working out what became the first Hot Tuna album, the acoustic album, in hotel rooms when we were on the road with the Airplane. And it sort of gained a life of its own.

JM: What does Jack bring to the music?

JK: Jack is an amazing musician. His voice is the bass. But through that voice he tells a lot of stories. When you’re playing a song, he’s got powerful parts that make the rhythm section drive the song. But in all that, and especially when he gets a chance to solo, he never does the same thing twice.

Now, listen, I’ve been playing the guitar for a long time, and I’m pretty good at what I do, but I have a realm, I have a road map of things that I draw from to do stuff. Every now and then something magical happens, and you try to remember it. But, you know, you play what you learned. Now, I don’t know what goes on inside Jack’s head, because we’ve never had this conversation, but I’ll tell you, he never ceases to amaze me with the things that he comes up with. It’s like a bottomless well. That, and the fact that when we play together he always listens to what me and the other guys do. He listens, he interacts. If marriages were like that, there’d never be a divorce rate.

JM: I’m sure, in many ways, that what you do doesn’t seem like a job.

JK: No, you know what the job is? The job is traveling. I’m on this long tour right now, and I don’t have to drive myself anymore, we have a bus. But I’d rather be home watching my kids grow some of the time. We play for free, we get paid to travel.

Click here for the full interview with Jorma Kaukonen.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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