Fifty years after Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady played their first show as a duo, during a hiatus from their regular-paycheck band, the old friends are still gigging together and will perform Saturday (Dec. 28) at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.
The guitar-and-bass duo was, and is, called Hot Tuna, and as always the focus for these two master musicians is the Piedmont blues style, pairing Kaukonen’s impeccably-played fingerpicking with Casady’s walking, talking bass, with measures of old-timey music, folk, jazz and involuntary fusion weaving in and out of the mix.
They were founding members of Jefferson Airplane, the quintessential San Francisco rock band (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of ’96), and made invaluable contributions to classic albums like Surrealistic Pillow, Crown of Creation and Volunteers.
As part of the Airplane, Casady and Kaukonen played at the Monterey Pop Festival, at Woodstock – and at Altamont.
“While we were on tour with the Airplane, the shows would end fairly early, and Jorma and I would go looking for clubs that were open,” Casady remembers. “Particularly clubs where, if we brought a bass and a guitar, we could sit in with whoever was there. And have fun, and work out material that way. We wanted to play all the time, and that’s kind of how it worked out. We were young aggressive and really wanting to learn all the time.
“There’s the kind of learning you do with rehearsing and writing material, and there’s the kind of learning you do by being out there, playing it live in front of audiences.”
Jefferson Airplane was known for making arrangement changes to their hit songs – “White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love” et al – onstage. That was something that Jack and Jorma enjoyed, particularly as guitarist/songwriter Paul Kantner and his wife, vocalist Grace Slick, began to exert more control over the band’s recorded sound and direction.
Concurrently, Hot Tuna began to play regularly, when the Airplane wasn’t working.
“As everybody started to develop in their writing and playing abilities, everybody wrote and played, and there was so much material, it really couldn’t be presented all under the umbrella of the Airplane,” Casady says.
“Looking back, I think the breakup wasn’t maybe gracefully done – no pun intended. At the point when it broke up, Paul had started doing his solo albums, we were doing Hot Tuna albums … I played on some of his albums too … so did Jorma, so did all kinds of people.
“And as it became apparent that the Airplane was going to stop functioning as ‘that group,’ Paul began to gather people together that would continue in his direction. He was really the master behind the Airplane and the signature sound. He was the one that got all the rehearsals together, and we rehearsed constantly. All that material was really complicated.”
Hot Tuna added and subtracted members, wrote and played searing electric music as well as acoustic, and their records sold respectably, if not spectacularly, as the 1970s advanced. Kantner and Slick re-imagined their group as Jefferson Starship. And that, of course, is another narrative altogether.
Casady says people used to ask him and Kaukonen all the time, why in the world did you leave such a successful band?
“Really, our main concerns were never as a hitmaker band,” he says now. “It was really just the love of the music, and the love of the creative period of time. And the times that were, literally, changing before our very eyes. In the mid ‘60s to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“As the creative process surges forward, you go with it. And so that’s what we did.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Jack and Jorma would bail out of Jefferson Airplane. They had places to go as musicians, places that weren’t on Paul Kantner’s roadmap.
“I look at myself as a musician who just happens to play the bass guitar,” Casady explains. “I realize what my functions are, and my roles; at the same time, I look at it more like an opportunity for an orchestral part, where you listen to the arrangement of the orchestral piece, the double bass will move into the cello range, then into the viola range and on up through the orchestra.
“When he and I play together as acoustic Hot Tuna, we try to assign those different roles. Where if you close your eyes, it doesn’t matter who’s playing what. You just hear the music.”
Playing together, he adds, “is more intense and more fun than it’s ever been. At the same time, the concentration level is as much or greater than it’s ever been. You have to do that in order to keep your craftwork current, in order to keep the communication current.
“Jorma is a true acoustic guitar player. He’s not an unplugged electric guitar player. He works in the genre of acoustic guitar, the delicacies and the approach within that world. And now I’m doing it with my acoustic bass guitar.
“Within that world of acoustic instruments, it really takes the concentration – and it is so different every single night. You open that door and you enter into that world, but that world is different every single night.”
As each of the classic Jefferson Airplane albums reached its 50th anniversary (Surrealistic Pillow, for example, hit the big five-oh in 2017) Hot Tuna – with guests – performed some of the songs in concert.
Kantner and lead singer Marty Balin are dead, and Slick has retired from music.
So, in a way, it was up to Casady and Kaukonen to acknowledge that legacy.
“Jorma and I sat down, just like we used to back in the day,” the 75-year-old Casady recalls, “when we were those 25-year-olds. In these crappy little hotel rooms, just sitting of the edge of two beds, playing guitar and bass and going over material.
“I had my iPhone out with all the records in it – we started going over things like ‘Lawman’ and ‘Greasy Heart’ and a bunch things that Grace had done – and we started talking about how complicated a lot of the arrangements were, and how we really worked on it during those years. I was trying to figure out something on the bass, and I was saying ‘How in the hell did I do that?’
“It’s fascinating, and it’s something you don’t look back on very often unless you have to. It was fun and it was informative, and it made us quite proud of the work we’d done that we had just sort of forgotten about.”
Saturday’s Clearwater show is Acoustic Hot Tuna. John McEuen will open. Tickets are here.