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Jorma Kaukonen: rock’s non-stop performer

The legendary musician, who has been recording and performing since the early 1960s, continues to make music

Jorma Kaukonen continues to tour.
Jorma Kaukonen continues to tour. (Courtesy

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Last December, Jorma Kaukonen turned 81. His band Hot Tuna, formed in 1969, is a bit over half a century old. And as a solo musician, he still regularly performs live, releasing a trove 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 bandmates from Airplane were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, US. In short, Kaukonen is a legend.

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This year, the famous New York concert venue Carnegie Hall has plans to honour Kaukonen and another octogenarian legend, the jazz bassist Ron Carter, who will turn 85 in May. Two concerts have been planned. In April, Kaukonen will perform with Hot Tuna, which he founded with his bandmate and bassist from the erstwhile Airplane, Jack Casady. And, in May, the jazz maestro, Carter, is slated to perform with different musicians. They may be of different genres but both concerts will likely be memorable events.

Sadly, few of us may be able to make it to Carnegie Hall. But for fans of Kaukonen, there is no dearth of music to be bought, streamed or downloaded. Spotify alone has dozens of his albums—all of his 13 solo studio albums, but also innumerable live recordings whose list keeps growing. Then there is Hot Tuna’s discography to explore. That’s also an ever-expanding list because Kaukonen and Casady perform inexhaustibly and put out recordings of those gigs. On 17 January, we got the latest of those, 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 be part of Jefferson Airplane, he was initially hesitant. A self-described country blues singer, he wasn’t sure how he would fit into a rock band. Country blues is a laid-back genre with a finger-picked acoustic guitar accompanying solo vocals. The Airplane intended to be an electric rock band and, as it happened, eventually evolved into becoming one of psychedelic rock’s most famous vanguards. But the young Kaukonen took the plunge, picking up the electric guitar, experimenting with electronic technologies and giving the Airplane its characteristic groovy, trippy sound.

That sound is best heard on live recordings of the Airplane concerts. Such as on Bless Its Pointed Little Head, an album recorded in 1968 at the historic venues Fillmore East in New York and Fillmore West in San Francisco (neither exists today). On the band’s version of Rock Me Baby (originally by B. B. King), you can hear Kaukonen’s licks, still country blues in spirit but electrified rock in its rendition. The other memorable Airplane track noted for Kaukonen’s touch is the instrumental Embryonic Journey from Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane album from 1967.

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Kaukonen has been featuring many of his Airplane-era songs in set-lists during his ongoing concerts, some of them in the spare, acoustic form that showcases his mastery of picking his guitar’s strings. But what is most remarkable is Kaukonen’s relentless ability to “keep on keeping on” (to borrow the title of a song by Curtis Mayfield, the influential soul singer). He has been recording and performing almost non-stop since the early 1960s, which is no mean feat in an industry where burnout, premature demise and other excesses of the rock music scene commonly take their toll on the careers of many musicians.

Last year, Kaukonen released The River Flows Vol. 1 & 2 The Complete Sessions, a set he performed with the guitarist John Hurlbut, his friend and collaborator. On that album, it’s Hurlbut who sings and plays rhythm guitar as Kaukonen takes the acoustic lead. It’s a cosy stress-buster of an album where the duo takes us on a sojourn of American roots and country blues songs. Kaukonen still picks like a virtuoso and Hurlbut sings in an easy-going, unaffected manner.

In many ways, The River Flows is an apt aural accompaniment to the way we are forced to lead our lives in the pandemic years because it’s the perfect palliative for our frayed nerves and stressed-out lives.. The 22 tracks, whether it is the opener, The Ballad Of Easy Rider (originally by The Byrds), Bob Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door, or Mayfield’s People Get Ready, are all gently performed by the duo, accompanied only by their acoustic guitars. A much needed salve.

At a recent solo concert, Kaukonen said, “We are happy to be here but then at our age, we are happy to be anywhere.” Into his 80th decade, Kaukonen is happy to make music. His wife and he run the Fur Peace Ranch, a 126-acre place managed by Hurlbut, in Ohio, where guitar camps, gigs and recordings are done. And, of course, he continues to tour relentlessly.

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