Jorma Kaukonen, still soulful and still on the road—including a stop at the Cedar Cultural Center


On the heels of Hot Tuna’s Steady As She Goes (Red House Records), the indefatigable Jorma Kaukonen comes to Cedar Cultural Center on May 6 for a solo show on acoustic guitar and vocals. Barry Mitterhoff accompanies on mandolin.

Stars in My Crown marked Kaukonen’s 2007 debut on Red House, followed by River of Time in 2009. Three successful albums into the relationship, it’s a smart match of artist and label. For which fans of one of rock’s most readily identifiable guitarists, not mention intriguing singer-songwriter are profoundly grateful. The famed San Francisco Sound yielded enduring names on guitar; the foremost being Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia, Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippolina, and Kaukonen, playing lead with Jefferson Airplane, then heading up Hot Tuna.

Steady As She Goes, Hot Tuna’s first studio album in 20 years, kills. Jorma Kaukonen and stalwart Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist extraordinaire Jack Casady play off each other as beautifully as they ever have, joined by Barry Mitterhoff and Skoota Warner (drums) with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and vocalist Teresa Williams. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady wax more economic than in the old days when they launched jamming forays like Kaukonen’s “Sea Child” and Snooks Eaglin’s “Come Back Baby.”

The faithful need not fret. Odds are, in concert, there’ll be, along with material from Steady As She Goes, at least a couple numbers on which the boys go for broke. “Angel of Darkness” leads Steady As She Goes off, brandishing Hot Tuna’s trademark: nasty guitar, wry vocal, all underscored by fluid bass. Written by Kaukonen and Campbell, this is a hip-shaker—and a strong social statement, lamenting the plight of young girls on the street. “Innocent light, trapped in the night/ Angel of darkness/ You’ve got it wrong, you don’t belong/ On the cold streets you roam/ Sweet runaway/ There’s no debt to pay/ Angel of darkness/ Find your star/ That’s who you are/ Follow it home.” Wouldn’t be Hot Tuna without blues numbers. This time out there’s, among others, Blind Reverend Gary Davis’s “Children of Zion” and “Mama, Let Me Lay It On You.”

As living legends go, Jorma Kaukonen is a pretty down-to-earth guy with laid-back class. Easy going, he was upbeat and affable for a phone conversation about his craft and career.

How’d Steady As She Goes come to be? You just wake up one day and decide to do it?
In a way, yeah. People ask ‘Why did you wait so long?” It wasn’t the right time. The stars aligned. 

How’d Hot Tuna start to begin with?
Sort of an accidental thing. Jack and I, of course, been playing together since before rocks and water. Jefferson Airplane was going along. I’d get back to the hotel room, have my acoustic guitar. He had a bass and amp. I’d start [showing] him this stuff I’d been doing [as a] folkie. He figured out all this cool stuff. So, that happened. It got legs of it’s own. I don’t remember where it was. Might’ve been [playing] Fillmore East or something. All of a sudden, in the middle of an Airplane show, Paul Kantner goes, “Why don’t you guys play a song?” I’m, like, “Really?” Maybe he had to go to the bathroom. Anyway, bless him. We started doing it, people liked it. That’s how it started.

Are your lyrics existential? I’m thinking “Star Track,” “Last Wall of the Castle” from Crown of Creation and After Bathing At Baxter’s with the Airplane.
Probably back then, definitely. I grew up in that sort of beatnik, you know, Jean Paul Sartre time. A little less today. A lot of my imagery is still the same.

You and Jack Casady have been together longer than most marriages last. How has that worked out? How has it happened?
Well, it’s lasted longer than my first marriage. And, since I’m not a kid anymore, it’ll probably be longer than my second. Me and Jack, even when we were [teenagers], we’re different guys. But, we’re good friends. We respect each other as men and as artists.

Readers nearly rode me out of town on a rail for comparing “Star Track” to “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Would you set the record straight?
“Star Track” is certainly inspired by “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is such a powerful song. The lyric is powerful. It sent me on a trip. Carried me a lot of places. As a guitar player, there’s E-minor chords and what not, took me a lot of different places. Very melodic. If you [listen to] “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” that’s similar. Reverend Gary Davis [is] a powerful muse for me. No question about it. No question in my mind.

What’s next?
We’ll be on the road.