Jorma Kaukonen Still Puts the Hot in Hot Tuna 50 Years In

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Hot Tuna Acoustic & Electric with special guests The Midnight Ramble Band, Wednesday, December 1, 7 p.m. at The Egg  

 Legendary Jefferson Airplane guitarist/singer/songwriter Jorma Kaukonen will be 81 two days before Christmas. “My grandfather was an old man in his 50s, but my father was pretty vigorous until he had his stroke when he was a couple of years older. 

“I think in this era I’ve discovered so much more about the evolution of my place (in relation to that of) my wife and daughter and stuff like that. I think if people can no longer do that, then I don’t see them quite honestly as being alive.” Jorma’s band Hot Tuna is double-billed in concert with The Midnight Ramble Band at The Egg on Wednesday, December 1st

Talk about being alive! Not only did Jorma in The Jefferson Airplane bring psychedelic music of the ’60s to a wider audience than The Grateful Dead would score for more than a decade to come, but his work with Hot Tuna opened a door to folk fans that Dylan had first explored when he went electric.   

The “counter-culture” booed Dylan but cheered Hot Tuna. The folk scare of the early ’60s originated with musicians and fans who were rebelling, not embracing the rock music of the day. Dylan was viewed as a traitor by the hard-core folkies by plugging in in 1965. Hot Tuna began as an offshoot of the very electric Jefferson Airplane and for more than half a century has fluctuated between acoustic and electric concerts.

Jorma has been a character in every good sense of the word since he was a child. “When we lived in the Philippines, my dad was in the service, and we’d occasionally go to this Naval base Sandy Point at the Officer’s club, and this hapless Filipino would be playing incidental music on the piano.  My father would go up to him relentlessly and say, ‘Here’s 20 pesos. Take a break.’ (The piano player would say) ‘Here’s the deal. We don’t care if you listen. We don’t care if you talk. We’re probably not gonna take requests, but we might. So, we are going to play. You cannot buy our silence. Whatever happens, we are going to play.’ 

“I’m not gonna be like that poor Filipino my dad used to give 20 pesos to take a break while he had a hamburger or something,” says Jorma but he did take one cue from that early experience. During one of our interviews, he said, “Well, we got to get off the phone because I’ve got to go play lunch music for the people in my restaurant.”  I thought to myself here’s one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane, and he’s going to take requests from people eating their club sandwiches in the idle of the day at lunch? He’s just a regular guy. 

“I am, If nothing else, I’m a regular guy. Here’s the thing. We have a little restaurant, and that’s where I started to get serious about this stuff, and I thought, ‘You’re not doing anything right now. I’ll have ’em throw songs at me literally unrehearsed, you know?” 

In another interview, he apologized for being tired because he’d stayed up and streamed several episodes of “The Strain,” a horror show about a pandemic not unlike the one we’re trying to get out of. “I went to eBay and bought all of the episodes, and it was worth every penny. It’s totally prescient. In “The Strain,” all of that takes place before the nuclear winter. That’s like three months. In three months, everything goes to shit.” 

In May of 2020, two months into the pandemic he told me, “My daughter is 14 years old. She has time. My son is 23, and he’s got time, but guys our age, whatever we had planned for this year is not going to happen, and that’s not going to come back again. But am I rending my garments and self-lacerating? No, because that’s how it is, but that’s a fact, and I do think about it.” 

A year and a half later, he’s landed on his feet, having done streaming concerts, released an album, The River Flows Vol. 2, and is now on tour. 

“2020 was gonna be our best year ever. In every possible way, it was gonna be our best year ever, and of course, that didn’t happen, ok? Having said that, there’s a bunch of money we didn’t make, but I think in the course of what happened, I personally have discovered a lot more about myself and I think you and I are in the same ballpark. You can probably relate to this. At our collective ages, it’s really important to be able to still discover stuff.” 

Hot Tuna Acoustic & Electric share a bill with special guests the Midnight Ramble Band, Wednesday, December 1, 7 p.m. at The Egg. Empire State Plaza in Albany. Tickets are $59.50, $49.50. $44.50. Jorma and bassist Jack Casady will be joined by drummer Justin Guip on both acoustic and electric sets.

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