Jorma Kaukonen to show his acoustic side

Rocker whose style fueled sound of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, will perform next month in Israel.

Jorma Kaukonen 370 (photo credit: Barry Berenson)
Jorma Kaukonen 370
(photo credit: Barry Berenson)
Once he got a taste of Israel, Jorma Kaukonen just couldn’t stay away. Whether it was performing an electrifying sold out show with his band Hot Tuna at Tel Aviv’s Reading 3 or laying tefillin in Jerusalem’s Old City, the 71- year-old guitar master explained that his first trip to the country in December 2010 more than met his expectations.
“The whole experience was a highlight for me,” Kaukonen said last week from his home in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio. “Words don’t express it properly, but there’s not place like Israel in the world.”
That connection has contributed to his decision to return for two shows on December 13 at
Guitar master Jorma Kaukonen. (Barry Berenson)
Guitar master Jorma Kaukonen. (Barry Berenson)
Zappa Jerusalem and December 15 at Zappa Tel Aviv, where he’ll perform acoustically with long-time accompanist and mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff.
The rock legend and inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for his groundbreaking work as co-founder and lead guitarist of the Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s hasn’t kept his Jewish heritage a secret, telling The Jerusalem Post two years ago that Israel had something to do with the formation of the Airplane in 1965.
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 by the rock & roll bug as executed by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Byrds, he was asked by his friends Paul Kantner and Marty Balin if he wanted to form 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.
Even though it took Kaukonen more than 45 years to complete the circle by visiting the country that provided his first guitar, he made up for lost time. He rocked Tel Aviv with Hot Tuna, including his Airplane band mate Jack Casady on bass (despite a snowstorm in Europe that almost forced them to miss the show and resulted in their performing partially on borrowed equipment). And he spent time touring Jerusalem and visiting the Kotel, where he accepted an offer to put on tefillin.
He said it was an experience he won’t forget. “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.”
The same could be said for the show, which Kaukonen remembers as consisting of one of the most diverse audiences he’s ever played for. Young native Israeli blues and rock fans mingled with veteran American immigrants sporting kippot and tzitzit, all engaging in a communal floating hippie shuckle.
“The audience was unbelievably eclectic, in terms of age and degrees of observance. I loved it, it was something you can’t make up,” he said.
The audience makeup will likely be just as varied when Kaukonen arrives for his December shows, billed as a “solo” tour. But with Mitterhoff joining him on a myriad of instruments and Kaukonen’s own acoustic guitar chops in the spotlight, the shows will hardly be mellow.
“The volume and physicality of a rock & roll show is obviously a component, but to me, as a player, I find myself putting more energy into a quote unquote acoustic job. You have to work harder,” said Kaukonen.
“But I love acoustic music more than anything, and I’ve been playing with Barry for 11 years. It’s always magic between us.”
Kaukonen hasn’t forsaken his electric side though, stating that Hot Tuna would be headed back out on the road early next year.
Bassist Casady recently lost his wife after a long illness and Kaukonen explained that he’s been spending time in her native England taking care of family business.
“Jack’s my oldest friend and something fresh always happens when we play together,” he said. “He’s always got some musical projects going on, but we always come back together for Hot Tuna.”
Another recent loss in Kaukonen’s musical family was this year’s death of Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band. His “Midnight Rambles” at his home barn/club in upstate New York provided an inviting venue for many of the rootsy musicians of the 1960s and 70s, including Kaukonen, who performed in a benefit show last month at New Jersey’s Izod Center to raise funds to keep the venue going.
He joined luminaries like Gregg Allman, Jakob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby, Roger Waters and Mavis Staples, backed by the Midnight Ramble Band including Helm’s daughter Amy, for a night of gritty voices and twangy guitars.
“It was called ‘Love for Levon’ and it was incredible. I looked around my dressing room and there was Allan Toussaint, John Hiatt and John Prine sitting there,” said Kaukonen.
Some of those same musicians are also familiar guests at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, where along with his wife Vanessa, he’s operated a music camp for the past 15 years. Running every two weeks from March through November over a Friday-Monday session, the camp offers music instruction to weekend guitar warriors with some legendary names like Chris Hillman (The Byrds), GE Smith (Hall & Oates, Saturday Night Live, Bob Dylan) and Australian guitar hero Tommy Emmanuel, who’s performing in Tel Aviv on November 27.
“It’s been going really well, and we have two more sessions before we close for the year,” said Kaukonen. “The last one at the end of November is going to be our Reverend Gary Davis weekend and our guest performer is David Bromberg.”
Once the camp is packed up, Kaukonen will also be packing his bags for his return trip to Israel, where he’ll be accompanied by his 15- year-old son.
“He lives with his mother in Virginia, and aside from the fact that he’s getting out of school for two weeks, he’s really looking forward to coming to Israel,” he said. “But he’s not more excited about it than I am.”
Fans of authentic roots music as performed by one of its sterling practitioners share the sentiment.