From their days playing together as teenagers to their current acoustic and electric blues, probably no one has more consistently led American music for the last 50 years — yes! — than Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, the founders and continuing core members of Hot Tuna.
The pair began playing together while growing up in the Washington D.C. area, where Jack’s father was a dentist and Jorma’s father a State Department official. Four years younger, Jack continued in junior high, then high school — while playing professional gigs as lead guitarist at night before he was old enough to drive — while Jorma (who had played rhythm guitar to Jack’s lead) started college in Ohio, accompanied his family overseas, then returned to college, this time in California.
Along the way, Jorma became enamored of, then committed to, the finger-picking guitar style exemplified by the now-legendary Rev. Gary Davis. Jack, meanwhile, had taken an interest in the electric bass, at the time a controversial instrument in blues, jazz, and folk circles.
In the mid 1960s, Jorma was asked to audition to play guitar for a new band that was forming in San Francisco. Though an acoustic player at heart, he grew interested in the electronic gadgetry that was beginning to make an appearance in the popular music scene — particularly in a primitive processor brought to the audition by a fellow named Ken Kesey — and decided to join that band; soon thereafter he summoned his young friend from Washington, who now played the bass.
Thus was created the unique (then and now) sound that was The Jefferson Airplane. Jorma even contributed the band’s name, drawn from a nickname a friend had for the blues-playing Jorma. Jack’s experience as a lead guitarist led to a style of bass playing which took the instrument far beyond its traditional role.
While in The Jefferson Airplane, putting together the soundtrack of the 60s, the pair remained loyal to the blues, jazz, bluegrass, and folk influences of the small clubs and larger venues they had learned from years before. While in San Francisco and even in hotel rooms on the road, they would play together and worked up a set of songs that they would often play at clubs in the Bay Area and while on the road, often after having played a set with the Airplane. This led to a record contract; in fact, they had an album recorded before they decided to name their band Hot Tuna. With it they launched on an odyssey which has itself continued for more than 35 years, always finding new and interesting turns in its path forward.
The first thing an early Hot Tuna fans discovered at their concerts of the early 1970s was that the band was growing louder and louder. In an era in which volume often overtrumped musicianship, Hot Tuna provided both. The second thing a fan would discover was that Jack and Jorma really loved to play. “Look around for another band that plays uninterrupted three- to six-hour sets,” wrote reviewer Jerry Moore. What Moore could not have known was that had there been no audience at all, they would have played just as long and just as well, so devoted were they to making music. Of course, the audience wasn’t superfluous by any means; it energized and continues to energize their performances. Album followed album — more than two dozen in all, not counting solo efforts, side projects, and appearances on the albums of other bands and performers — and they continued to develop their interests and styles, both together and in individual pursuits. In an era in which old bands reunite for one last tour, Hot Tuna can’t because Hot Tuna never broke up.
Along the way, they have been joined by a succession of talented musicians: Drummers, harmonica players, keyboardists, backup singers, violinists, mandolinists, and more, all fitting in to Jorma and Jack’s current place in the musical spectrum. And along the way there was no list of outstanding guitarists that didn’t include Jorma, nor was there anyone who seriously thought there is a better bass player than Jack.
After two decades of acoustic and electric concerts and albums, the 1990s brought a new focus on acoustic music to Hot Tuna. More intimate venues with a more individual connection to the audience became increasingly frequent stops. Soon, the loud electric sound (and the semi trailer load of equipment) disappeared entirely from Hot Tuna tours. Maturity brought the desire to do things not instead of but in addition to being a touring band. Both had become interested in teaching, passing along what they had learned and what they had uniquely developed to a new generation of players.
In 1998 Jorma and his wife Vanessa opened Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp, in the beautiful rolling Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio.
Here, on a sprawling and rustic yet modern campus, musicians and would-be musicians come for intensive and enjoyable workshops taught by Jorma, Jack, and other extraordinary players, learning things that range from different styles of playing to songwriting and even storytelling (the musician in performance has to say something while changing that broken string!), to making a song one’s own.
In addition, there is now BreakDownWay.com, a unique interactive teaching site that comes closest of anything yet to make individual instruction available to students anywhere there is a computer and an Internet connection.
But the teaching doesn’t replace Hot Tuna’s busy tour schedule; it’s in addition to the tours. Nor have they lighened up their individual schedules. Jack released his first solo CD, Dream Factor, on Eagle Records in 2003. He has a busy and elaborate website at jackcasady.com. Jorma has a website, too, and achieved enormous critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination for his 2003 solo album, Blue Country Heart. (Both are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame due to their pioneering work in The Jefferson Airplane.) As 2006 began, they launched another exciting website, Hot Tuna Tunes, where fans may inexpensively download professionally made recordings of full Hot Tuna concerts in both MP3 and lossless encodings, suitable for portable player and home-burned CDs respectively. Hot Tuna Tunes is added to all the time, so it’s almost as if Hot Tuna were releasing numerous live concert albums every year. Collect the entire set!
For the last few years, Jorma and Jack have been joined in most of their Hot Tuna performances by the mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff. A veteran of bluegrass, Celtic, folk, and rock-influenced bands including “Tony Trischka and Skyline” and “Bottle Hill,” Barry has found a new voice in working with Hot Tuna, and the fit has been good — watching them play, it’s as if he’s been there from the beginning and they’re all having the time of their lives.
Jorma and Jack certainly could not have imagined, let alone predicted, where playing would take them. It’s been a long and fascinating road to numerous exciting destinations. Two things have never changed: They still love to play as much as they did as kids in Washington D.C., and there are still many, many exciting miles yet to travel on their musical odyssey.