Jorma Kaukonen may have taken off with the help of the Jefferson Airplane, but he’s still in mid-flight thanks to his own prodigious talent.
The 71-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame guitarist was propelled into the psychedelic 1960s eye of the storm, where his solos powered hippie anthems like “Somebody to Love” and “Volunteers.” But Kaukonen emerged from the folk and blues tradition, paths he quickly returned to at the dawn of the 1970s with his offshoot band Hot Tuna, which continues to fuel him to this day.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t pick up the acoustic guitar and write and play. Unless I’m checking out a new guitar or rehearsing or performing with the band, I almost never pick up an electric guitar. It’s always been that way,” said Kaukonen in 2010 before arriving for his first show in Israel with his Airplane/Tuna partner Jack Casady.
While that show displayed Kaukonen’s electric blues chops, his return to Israel this week will focus on his acoustic side. At Hemdat Yamim tonight and Zappa Tel Aviv tomorrow, Kaukonen will be accompanied by long-time Tuna collaborator and mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff.
“The volume and physicality of a rock ‘n’ roll show is obviously a component, but to me, as a player, I find myself putting more energy into an ‘acoustic’ job. You have to work harder,” said Kaukonen last month in an interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the shows.
“But I love acoustic music more than anything, and I’ve been playing with Barry for 11 years. It’s always magic between us.”
There’s also magic for the Jewish Kaukonen in Israel which, despite his never having visited until the 2010 show, played a pivotal role in his career.
His grandmother, a Russian immigrant to the US and an ardent Zionist, gave her grandson Israel bonds as presents while he was growing up. The young Kaukonen, who had become an expert folk and blues acoustic guitarist growing up in Washington, DC, headed out to San Francisco to attend Santa Clara University in the mid-1960s and fell into a hootenanny scene that included such future stars as Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia.
Bitten along with almost every young American by the rock ‘n’ roll bug brought over by the British Invasion, he decided to join his friends Paul Kantner and Marty Balin in growing out his hair and forming a band. Having no other funds to his name, Kaukonen cashed in his bonds money to buy his first electric guitar – a Rickenbacker – and the Airplane took flight.
Within six years they were history, but they also made history. And in the ensuing years, Kaukonen and Hot Tuna have established a longstanding roots rock tradition that sits comfortably alongside his acclaimed solo work like 2009’s River of Time.
Another tradition Kaukonen established, along with his wife, Vanessa, is the Fur Peace Ranch music camp, which has taken place at his home in Ohio for the past 15 years. Offering weekend sessions for six months of the year, the rustic setting provides an inspiring backdrop for musical instructions and jam time for weekend guitar warriors with some of the great pickers in roots music, such as David Bromberg and Chris Hillman of The Byrds.
But Kaukonen has never forgotten his debt to his Jewish Zionist heritage. On his visit two years ago, he reveled in touring Jerusalem, laying tefillin at the Western Wall and discovering modern Israel. On this visit, he’ll be bringing his 15-year-old son for his glimpse of the country.
“Obviously, when you visit Israel as a Jew, it’s an experience that is different on every level to that of a non-Jew,” he said. “It just felt like I was in the right place.”
And for anyone curious to find out whether there’s life after Haight Ashbury, one of Kaukonen’s appearances this week is the right place to be.
Jorma Kaukonen will perform at Zappa Jerusalem on December 13; at Hemdat Yamim on December 14; and at Zappa Tel Aviv on December 15.
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