Hot Tuna are Still Torching Stages Fifty Years In
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna in 1969 while ascending with Jefferson Airplane. Currently with drummer Justin Guip, Hot Tuna is a raw and powerful electric rock ‘n’ blues beast. Although the “Rampage Years” of the ’70s are behind them (if the sun wasn’t rising upon exiting the concert hall, your show experience was weak), Hot Tuna can still torch the stage.
Hot Tuna’s 50th Anniversary Tour will take them across the US this summer, with an Atlanta stop at the Variety Playhouse on August 31. It’s become a familiar and comfortable stage for the habitually touring group. As Kaukonen, 78, describes it, “the Variety Playhouse is almost a tradition over the years. And not the least part of that tradition are the great restaurants in the area…”
In between dealing with a fallen tree at his Ohio home and planning for a solo show the following day, Jorma took time out to speak with Stomp and Stammer...
When was your teenage high school band with Jack, The Triumphs, together?
“They were only really together for a couple of months, but it would have been winter and spring of ’58.”
So it’s really been 60 years that you’ve been playing together?
“If you look at it that way, yeah.”
In Hot Tuna you are a co-captain, and in your solo career you are alone. Recently you played in Phil Lesh & Friends as a member of someone else’s band. You said on your blog that you had a great time, and I listened to the shows and they sounded great. Did you guys do rehearsals?
“Phil doesn’t do rehearsals. The sound check of each day was rehearsal.”
Did you have a homework assignment beforehand?
“He didn’t even tell me what songs we were doing until two days before the shows.”
What if he chose a song you didn’t know?
“Well, first of all I’m not the rhythm section. As a lead guitar player it wasn’t quite as important to know all the chords. But [keyboardist] Rob Barraco, God bless him, after every rehearsal went over every song and wrote a chart for each song. The sets were picked before I got there so I knew what was happening, so I did some homework and stuff. I worked out a real nice finger style thing for ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues,’ which is my personal flagship.”
Like right now if you and I sat down could you play [the Grateful Dead song that they played during the show] “Mason’s Children?”
“Oh God, no! Phil’s take on this was that he didn’t want me to be rehearsed… You know, I’m not a Grateful Dead member…he wanted me to be Jorma. I told him, ‘Well good…because that’s what you’re going to get.’ The whole deal was that he really just wanted to throw me into the mix with his guys and see what I came up with. Once I understood that, it took a lot of pressure off me. Like I said, Grateful Dead songs are not lightly undertaken. If you’re going to do ‘Eyes of the World’ you gotta know how that song goes, or at least you gotta have a road map for it.”
We’ve spoken about your tour bubble. When you come to Atlanta, or any city, how important is where you are to where you are?
“When I was in Hawaii I went snorkeling with an old friend. To get out of [my tour bubble] in Atlanta and go to a museum or something…it’s not gonna happen. And plus, we’re usually only there for overnight anyway.”
When you do go around do people recognize you?
Does anyone come up and tell you how much they love you and things like that?
“Infrequently. Sometimes but very infrequently…I’m an old guy now…most of them have no idea that we’re still alive. It’s not that I’m isolated, it’s just that when I’m on the road…to me it’s all about the job. If it’s convenient for me to do some kind of sightseeing I may or may not do it. As a rule, I just really like keeping to myself. If I go out to a movie I don’t even consider that being outside the bubble because I’m not going to tell anybody.”
What’s your gear setup? Are you going to be playing the Beano [Gibson guitar based on the one Eric Clapton used on his LP with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers] on this tour?
“No, I’ll be playing the [Gibson] Firebird. I’ll have the Beano with me but I’ll be playing the Firebird. I used the Beano with Phil because the Firebird is just a little too aggressive to fit in with what he was doing.”
But it’s not too aggressive for you?
“No, no…it’s a trio instrument. The Firebird…it’s a different beast. It’s hard to talk about but people who play them will understand it. It’s got more frets. It’s just better for a trio application.”
You have such a nice arsenal of guitars. How do you pick?
“I try to rotate things accordingly. You’re right. I do have a nice arsenal and if I only owned any one of those guitars it would be fine.”
Regarding the Hot Tuna sonic palette, throughout the 50 years there have been duos, quartets and quintets. When there is no other treble instrument does it change your approach as you’re the only one?
“Oh sure. If there’s another instrument then I don’t need to do as much stuff. With the trio there’s a lot of space that needs to be taken up. And part of that is taken up by volume. Volume is a component.”
After Atlanta you’re opening for [Grateful Dead cover band] Dark Star Orchestra at Red Rocks [outside Denver]. I understand how the music business works but the argument could be made that they should be opening for you. Has anyone ever opened for you where you thought, “This is wrong. These people are far more important that I am, and I should be opening for them. It should be the other way around”?
“Oh sure. I guess the classic thing was when we played Tanglewood [Music Center, Lenox, MA. 1969]. The Airplane was the headline act, The Who was the middle act, and B.B. King was the opening act. I remember thinking that B.B. should have been the headliner. Oh, there’s another one too…we played [Kitsilano Theatre] Simon Fraser University [Vancouver, 1966] with the first incarnation of the Airplane when Signe [Anderson] was still singing with the band and it was Jack’s first road trip (further research suggests this gig may have been another 1966 venue). Muddy Waters opened for us, so that would be another one. I remember at the time thinking it should be otherwise. And I remember talking to Muddy, who was one of the most gracious human beings I have ever met. It didn’t faze him one way or the other.”
Is there any attraction to playing a place like Graceland [a few days after Atlanta]?
“Oh absolutely. It’s awesome. You know, growing up, Elvis was such a huge thing when he burst upon the rock ‘n’ roll scene. To me, the Elvis memory is not the Vegas Elvis, but the rock ‘n’ roll Elvis.”
How do you create your set lists?
“A set list, to me…the dynamic of a set to me is the same thing as the dynamic of a song. With a beginning, middle and end. So I’ll structure things that way. However, depending on the flow of us, the environment and the audience, everything is subject to change. We tend to stick with the set list but we could have a thing where I get a wild hair and just change everything. The guys are up for that…they love that, actually.”
Regarding people hollering out requests, how often do you play a song you weren’t planning on playing because someone yelled it out?
“Well first of all, it has to fit in with the flow of what we’re doing. You never know. You really need to be tuned into the environment. Not that you’re a slave to your audience but we’re also there to entertain too. If the audience is vocally ebullient, we’ll live in that environment.”
Have you been listening to any new music?
“I’ve been tuned into Billie Eilish thanks to my [thirteen-year-old] daughter and I think she’s pretty awesome. You gotta check her out and when you get off the phone with me go listen to the song, ‘Bury a Friend.’ She’s seventeen years old and she writes all her own stuff.”
I’m guessing this 50th (or 60th) anniversary is just an arbitrary data point for you and Jack. You just continue to move forward. Is this generally just an extension of your existence?
“Yes exactly. We are who we are.”
Photo by Jay Blakesberg.