Standing on the other side of life with Jorma Kaukonen
By: Sam Robertson
Issue date: 2/27/09
Jorma Kaukonen is best known as the high-flying guitarist of
Jefferson Airplane who pioneered psychedelic rock in San Francisco in
the late 1960's. Although they were only together for a half dozen
years, Jefferson Airplane became one of the most popular bands of the
1960's. Their songs such as "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love"
helped form the soundtrack for the Summer of Love and the
counterculture. Along with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and John
Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Kaukonen helped create
the sound that is now known as acid rock with his loud, screeching,
psychedelic guitar playing. However, even during Kaukonen's wildest
years with Airplane, he never forgot his blues and folk roots. On his
new album, "River Of Time," he revisits those roots and shows that he
possesses a side that those who have only heard him in Jefferson
Airplane may not be aware of.
Before joining Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen was a regular in the San
Francisco beatnik coffee shop scene, playing traditional blues and
folk songs on his acoustic guitar. On "River Of Time," Kaukonen
doesn't pick up an electric guitar-the album showcases his acoustic
fingerpicking and his gritty, bluesy voice. It seems like whenever an
"Americana" roots rock album comes out, it's destined to be compared
to "Music From Big Pink" by The Band, since it remains the standard
for all albums in the genre today. "River Of Time" was recorded in
Levon Helm's (drums and vocals in The Band) home studio, in
Woodstock, NY. The album was recorded just down the street from
"Music From Big Pink," and Levon lends his talent to the album,
playing drums on a few of the songs. Helm's drumming is sparse, but
perfect. On the traditional country tune, "Trouble In Mind," the band
is just finishing up the song when Helm's freewheeling drumming
launches them into a raucous acoustic jam instead. Like this song,
the whole album has an organic, informal feel to it. The album sounds
like a group of friends relaxing on a back porch or around a campfire
in the woods, just playing feel-good country rock tunes. What's
different is that this group of friends is unusually talented.
Besides Helm, Kaukonen also enlists the help of
mandolin-extraordinaire Barry Mitterhoff and Larry Campbell, the most
talented man in Americana roots music today. Just within the last
decade, Campbell has toured with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, and Phil Lesh
& Friends, playing lead guitar in addition to mandolin, pedal steel
guitar, dobro, cittern and more. Besides playing a dozen instruments
on the album, Campbell produces the album and does a great job giving
it a rustic, wistful, warm sound. Campbell's wife, Theresa Williams,
who is an accomplished singer and also tours with Levon Helm and Phil
Lesh and Friends, also appears on the album, singing duets with
Kaukonen on "Nashville Blues" and "Preachin' On The Old Campground."
The album opens with "Been So Long," a song written by Kaukonen that
he recorded with Hot Tuna in 1971. However, it reappears on "River Of
Time" in a different format, with emphasis on Kaukonen's eerie
fingerpicking and vocals and Campbell's terrific mandolin playing.
"Cracks In The Finish," an autobiographical song written by Kaukonen,
is another highlight. It features some beautiful instrumental work by
Kaukonen on acoustic guitar and Larry Campbell on fiddle along with
Levon's funky drumming. Kaukonen credits Reverend Gary Davis as his
biggest guitar influence and pays tribute to him by covering "There's
A Bright Side Somewhere." Kaukonen also covers the Grateful Dead's
"Operator" and Merle Haggard's "More Than My Old Guitar" on the
album. He does them both justice - the latter especially. The album
is a very well assembled collection of six Kaukonen originals with
various covers that sound unique and fresh yet familiar all at the same time.
For those who have only heard Kaukonen in Jefferson Airplane, this
album reveals a wildly different side of him. However, for those who
have followed his career closer, this album is not anything radically
new. Starting with Hot Tuna's self-titled album, Kaukonen has
released several acoustic blues album similar to "River Of Time." But
even though the album isn't anything groundbreaking or new doesn't
mean that it's not worth hearing. Kaukonen's voice has aged like fine
wine, and he sounds richer and more soulful than ever right now. He
has also evolved as a musician, relying less on deft fingerpicked
guitar solos and more on vocals, lyrics, and the subtle contributions
of other musicians. As a result his music has become less showy and
more wholesome. "River Of Time" won't have much commercial success,
but it is as good as anything else Kaukonen has ever done and is an
album that any fan of acoustic blues, folk or country music will
Jorma Kaukonen has new CD and tour, but musician honors those from past
Jorma Kaukonen is 68, a remarkably youthful 68, especially for a
musician who burst onto the
scene 40 years ago in the drug- and alcohol-fueled days of the San
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a founding member of
the Jefferson Airplane, the muscular, tattooed Kaukonen has been
clean and sober for a dozen years and has contributed mightily to the
continuing popularity of traditional acoustic blues and country music.
As he has for nearly four decades, he still tours with former
Airplane bandmate Jack Casady in Hot Tuna. Over the course of his
long career, he's become one of America's foremost practitioners of
fingerstyle guitar, teaching what he's learned to others at his Fur
Peace Ranch Guitar Camp in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio.
As the senior member of the Guitar Blues tour he's co-headlining with
fellow guitarists Robben Ford and Ruthie Foster, he's been playing
night after night in performing arts centers, concert halls and
theaters across the country. Kaukonen and company play Friday at the
Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
"It's hectic," he admitted, speaking from Falls Church, Va., before a
recent show. "This tour means playing six or seven days in a row,
which I don't normally do. But as far as the personnel and the music,
it's the greatest."
A glowing review in North Carolina's Greensboro News & Record bears
that out, calling Kaukonen "the cleanest player in blues, every note
polished to a brilliant sheen."
After every concert, he adjourns to the theater lobby to autograph
copies of his new Red House Records CD, "River of Time," a tasteful
acoustic album recorded at Levon Helm's rustic studio in Woodstock, N.Y.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it's my best work, but I definitely think
it's some of my best work," he said. "I feel really good about it. I
guess we'll see if other people feel the same way."
It looks as if they do. The Washington Post says "Front-porch folk
music doesn't get much better." And a review in the Hartford Courant
in Connecticut calls it "a pleasant surprise when an act of
Kaukonen's vintage proves he's still got it as convincingly as he
does on 'River of Time.' It's a gentle record, full of blues and folk
tunes that showcase Kaukonen's considerable skill on acoustic guitar."
I was impressed by Kaukonen's sweet, almost boyish vocals on several
finely wrought original songs that reflect, as the album's title
suggests, the wisdom that comes with age and experience, the grace in
honoring those close to us who are gone and the acceptance of one's
"At 68 years old, you think a lot about that stuff," Jorma told me.
"You've got to write about what you're into. As we get older, more
people we know pass away and, let's face it, we're all gonna cash in
our chips some day. Nobody is fonder of songs about death than I am.
I find that a pleasing metaphor to work with. It's not something I
find depressing. It's just how it is. So you might as well embrace it."
Kaukonen has family ties to Marin. His late father lived here, and,
in his liner notes, Kaukonen thanks Ida, his paternal grandmother,
for coming to him in a dream and inspiring the title track, "River of Time."
"Some years ago I had that dream," he said. "My father's mother came
to me and said, 'People who are dead are on the shore.' My wife said,
'You should write that down. You're gonna need it some day.' She was
right. Good old Ida laid some words on me that I was able to turn into a song."
Beginning with "Been So Long," a song from the second Hot Tuna album,
the memory of friends and lovers come and gone runs like a stream of
nostalgia through "River of Time."
"Cracks in the Finish," for example, was inspired by a favorite
guitar that outlasted an unhappy marriage .
"I have this old Gibson J-50 guitar," Kaukonen recalled. "When I
married my first wife in 1964, we went to Yosemite and we were
playing it around the campfire. The next morning, because of the hot
and the cold, the finish cracked.
"It occurred to me later on, because our marriage wasn't necessarily
the happiest one, that I should have heeded those cracks in the
finish as a metaphor. The song went somewhere else, but that's where
it started from."
He uses the guitar as metaphor again on a cover of Merle Haggard's
"More than My Old Guitar."
"That song is on a rare Haggard album called 'Roots Volume I.'"
Kaukonen said. "It's hard to find. That song's got that line, 'I love
my guitar more than God loves the poor, but I love you even more.'
What a great line. I wish I'd written that."
Grateful Dead fans will be pleased to know that he honors the memory
of Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan with a playful acoustic rendition of the
original Dead keyboardist's song "Operator." And he pays his respects
to the Rev. Gary Davis with an interpretation of Davis' "There's a
Bright Side Somewhere."
In the liner notes to "River of Time," Kaukonen goes so far back as
to honor the memory of his first musical mentor, the late Ian
Buchanan, writing, "In the winter of 1960, for reasons known only to
himself, he chose to teach me to play the guitar in a way that has
defined my life. You live in my heart."
Far from living in the past, though, Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa,
are busy running their ranch and raising a daughter, Israel, who will
be 3 in June. He also has an 11-year-old son, Zach, by a previous marriage.
He includes a song for his daughter, "Izzie's Lullaby," on "River of Time."
"I wish I made her go to sleep," he said with a laugh. "When I play
it for her, she just wants me to play it again. I have young children
in my life and that gives me an anchor my dad wouldn't have had at my
age. It allows me to look at the full spectrum of life in an
enjoyable kind of way."
IF YOU GO
- What: Guitar Blues with Jorma Kaukonen, Robben Ford and Ruthie Foster
- Where: Marin Center, Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 10 Avenue
of the Flags, San Rafael
- When: 8 p.m. Feb. 27
- Tickets: $18 to $40
- Information: 499-6800; www.marincenter.org
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at email@example.com