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Q&A: Jorma Kaukonen on Pandemic Concerts and His New Album with John Hurlbut, ‘The River Flows’
Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen on life during the pandemic, the greatest ’60s SF bands, and Ike Turner
Stay-at-home orders during the pandemic may have slowed but not stopped Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitarist of Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s and Hot Tuna, the enduring band he formed with Airplane bassist Jack Casady. Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in southeast Ohio, which he operates with his wife Vanessa, continues to host free online quarantine concerts most weekends (view its YouTube archive here). The New York Times named the popular shows one of the “10 Best Quarantine Concerts Online.”
December 2020 saw the release of The River Flows, a new album by Kaukonen and longtime Ranch manager and performer John Hurlbut. The acoustic LP, available on vinyl, CD and album download, features Hurlbut’s vocals and rhythm guitar and Kaukonen’s lead guitar on some of their favorite tunes. Also included is a Hurlbut original, “Someone’s Calling.”
We spoke with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer in mid-January as he sat in his RV on the Ranch grounds. A wintry mix was swirling outside. “Every day’s a day closer to spring,” says Kaukonen.” That’s the way you gotta look at it.”
Rock Cellar: How did you come to record with John Hurlbut?
Jorma Kaukonen: Johnny’s been playing music forever. But he’s a local guy. If you didn’t know him, you just wouldn’t know him. But we’ve known each other forever. I’ve always really enjoyed my role of playing with him.
One of the upbeat things, if there is such a thing, from the pandemic is because we had all this time on our hands, I thought, I’m gonna produce an album with John and this is what we’re gonna do. And we were able to do that.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said you didn’t use bricklaying in recording the album. What does that mean?
Jorma Kaukonen: Bricklaying is where you lay down tracks. This is all live. There is zero bricklaying in this. It’s absolutely live, nobody’s plugged in, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to capture that kind of a feeling. Which we did.
Rock Cellar: John performs all the vocals on the album, and the instruments are your two acoustic guitars. What went into that choice?
Jorma Kaukonen: When I do my thing, whether it’s me solo or me with Jack [Casady], either acoustic or electric, it’s a different beast. But one of the things that I never get to do is to just do the kind of stuff I did with Jefferson Airplane all those years ago, where I am the lead guitar player/accompanist.
So to get an opportunity to do that, I told Johnny, you tell the story and I’m there to support you. I just wanted to keep it really simple, to be able to record and get a great sound on it.
And with just the two of us and nobody being at the Ranch, so it’s quiet, we were able to set up a studio in the workshop and record it live. We recorded all that stuff in two days. In my other worlds, this just wouldn’t happen like that.
Rock Cellar: What were you looking for in the songs you chose?
Jorma Kaukonen: We have a little restaurant here and he and I play for the lunch crowd and the supper crowd. And I love the sort of Americana stuff that he chooses from. That one song, “Someone’s Calling,” he wrote that after his mom died. That’s the only original song on the album.
There’s so many great songs out there and I love the story that he told with those songs. I told him Look, we’re sitting around, I’m looking for a philosophical space. I don’t want to put any boundaries around. Just pick a bunch of songs and you know where I’m coming from. Let me look at them, and he picked those songs and I went, I love ’em all. Let’s do it.
Rock Cellar: There are songs by both Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. Were you a Byrds fan back in the day?
Jorma Kaukonen: Of course. The Byrds are the grandaddies of modern country music until bro-country came in, of course. They’re just great songs and it’s funny, the kind of stuff that I listen to when I’m listening to music is not really the kind of stuff that I play. I love stories. I love mood pieces that other people have written. The Roger McGuinn song, “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” what a cool little song that is.
Back in those days to get to do a big song like that in a movie like Easy Rider is awesome to begin with but really, what a great song. We had Roger a couple of times here down at the Ranch. He had his Rickenbacker 12-string but he also has that Martin guitar that’s got a double third string, an octave third string.
He’s architected this style. There’s just nobody that plays like him. And so when he plays those songs, to me it’s like, yeah man, there are the songs. And they sound like they’re supposed to.
Rock Cellar: The originals of songs like “People Get Ready” are well known to rock fans. How do you approach making songs like this your own?
Jorma Kaukonen: When I looked at the songs that Johnny brought, he has a very idiosyncratic and personal style. He’s a good player, but he’s never learned or emulated anybody so it’s really different. So when he brings a song to the table, like for example, we’re working on a version of “Summertime” that we’re gonna do on our Quarantine Concert things.
And he does this one thing where he’s playing the song and I go, you know, that’s supposed to be a major chord there. And he goes, well, I play a minor chord. And I thought about it and went OK, that’s your arrangement.
So with something like “People Get Ready,” a Curtis Mayfield song, it’s really stripped down the way he does it. Maybe there are other takes on it but I just utterly gave him his head because I didn’t want him to start getting self-conscious about his playing.
That aspect of him being such a different kind of a player really allowed for me to hear a somewhat different take on all these songs without just being a quote-unquote “cover song.”
Rock Cellar: Did what’s happening today on the border influence your choice of Ry Cooder’s “Across the Borderline?”
Jorma Kaukonen: I’ve loved that song, it was in a movie called The Border that came out in ’82. That’s the first time I heard it, by Freddy Fender. I’ve just always loved that song. I loved the movie also. Is it relevant today? You bet. Did we pick it because it’s relevant? Not really, because Johnny and I started doing it at our little luncheon sessions a couple of years ago here.
And if you back off and look at it, especially in our country, that kind of song is always relevant. That’s just a great song.
Rock Cellar: How have you adapted what you do at Fur Peace Ranch during the pandemic?
Jorma Kaukonen: It’s been tough. Obviously we can’t do live concerts because our room is too small and so I can’t afford to do them because I can’t afford to pay people if we can’t fill the room. So we haven’t done that. We have been doing our coronavirus show every week and I will continue to do that until we get out of this thing.
During the summer we tried to do some live things, having two instructors and only five people in each class. Which doesn’t sound like a lot but my wife is meticulous about keeping people safe.
So we had the ultraviolet light and the sanitizing, all the kind of stuff that restaurants have to do. And it was just too much work. She’s up at 5:30 every morning for our open. So we’re doing stuff online, like so many people.
Rock Cellar: I see you’re doing your guitar courses online.
Jorma Kaukonen: My challenge with these guys is not just teaching another song. Without them actually being there and being able to have a hands-on sort of thing, it’s to try to impart some of the techniques that I’ve acquired over the years that will make them better players.
Zoom only lets the loudest person be heard at any particular time. One of the irritating things about guitar lessons is that guitar players — and you know I love them — they just can’t shut up and I know better than anybody else. So with the Zoom thing I can mute everybody but the guy that I’m talking to.
We’re doing a lot of Zoom stuff. And so we’re just trying to hold on, like so many small businesses, until we can afford to open up again. Thank God for Zoom. It’s not a perfect medium but it’s better than nothing.
Rock Cellar: What can viewers expect in the coming months from the Quarantine Concerts?
Jorma Kaukonen: More of the same because that’s what we got going on here but when we open up a little bit, I would like to get some of my buddies that are not afraid to travel that will come and join us for a show.
In the beginning I was trying not to repeat songs. So I started over from ground zero and now as of four or five weeks I’m trying to not repeat songs as long as I can. Resuscitating old tunes that haven’t been played by me in years. Just trying to keep it fresh as much as possible.
And of course my beloved wife Vanessa and I, we bust each other’s balls relentlessly on the show. And I tell people, this is who we are 24/7. That wouldn’t work in a concert but it’s fun to do with our quarantine set.
We have a lot of fun with it and you know, I’m very fortunate because a lot of people have thanked us profoundly for doing this and I say listen, this means so much to us because this really gives us a purpose in these troubled times.
Rock Cellar: What’s cooking with Jack and Hot Tuna? Will Jack be back on the Quarantine Concerts?
Jorma Kaukonen: Jack was out here, he came down here for awhile. Obviously we are dying to get to work again. We’re hoping when the weather warms up a little bit that there’ll be some socially distanced outside gigs. As soon as that happens, Jack and I are gonna work gigs together.
Rock Cellar: Let’s do a lightning round. Favorite ’60s San Francisco band besides the Airplane.
Jorma Kaukonen: Quicksilver [Messenger Service] would definitely be one of them. The Dead of course, ’cause they’re our buddies. Of course, Moby Grape. What an awesome band. A great band of players. That was such an exciting time for bands in San Francisco. The Charlatans. There’s a DVD called Rockin’ at the Red Dog. The Charlatans really started the San Francisco scene.
Rock Cellar: Dead or alive, a musician you would have liked to have played with that you haven’t.
Jorma Kaukonen: I guess Otis Rush, one of the blues guys. I would have really liked to have gotten the chance to play with Jimi Hendrix, which I never did. I think that would have been eye-opening on so many levels. I would have liked to have played with Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player on the Doors. I heard that stuff he was doing with Roy Rogers before he passed and I thought, we would have had a good time together too.
Rock Cellar: Favorite Airplane song?
Jorma Kaukonen: “We Can Be Together.”
Rock Cellar: Favorite Beatles song?
Jorma Kaukonen: Let me tell you my favorite Beatles album: Rubber Soul. I just really liked the songs on it. When I heard Rubber Soul I just loved all the songs on it.
Rock Cellar: Finally, favorite guitarist?
Jorma Kaukonen: Now that’s an unanswerable question because there’s so many great guitar players. Let’s say George Van Eps, the jazz guitar player. You need to listen to his version of “Tango el Bongo,” which he plays solo on a seven-string guitar. That’s awesome.
And now rock guitar players. You’re gonna love this. Ike Turner. On the ’72 Ike and Tina album, listen to the guitar solo on the song “Hully Gully.” That is one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.
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