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Jorma Kaukonen at 75: Freakin’ at The Beacon

On Friday and Saturday nights, Jorma Kaukonen will celebrate his 75th birthday at New York’s Beacon Theater. These “Freakin’ at the Beacon” shows will feature Kaukonen along with his longtime musical partner Jack Casady and their electric Hot Tuna project.

To mark this occasion, we look back to this past September when the pair celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jefferson Airplane by performing the group’s music at Lockn’. The duo, who also played an acoustic set the next day in their regular incarnation as Hot Tuna, were joined by Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Rachael Price (Lake Street Drive), GE Smith, Jeff Pehrson, Justin Guip and special guest Bill Kreutzmann.

Kaukonen admits that he was initially skeptical of playing his former band’s material, and even turned down a reunion set at Hard Strictly Bluegrass, but Lockn’ co-founder Dave Frey brought up a creative scenario that satisfied him.

Jefferson Airplane originally formed with the intent to merge folk with rock but soon reflected the growing psychedelic scene on its second album, and first with Grace Slick, Surrealistic Pillow. With chart topping singles, magazine covers and appearances at Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont, the band became a major presence on the counterculture scene. The group released seven studio and two live albums and a platinum-selling greatest hits collection.

Tensions within its ranks led to the members disembarking the Airplane in 1972. At that time Kaukonen and Casady made their onetime side project, Hot Tuna, into a fulltime gig. A brief reunion of Airplane members in 1989 resulted in an album and tour. But, soon afterwards, the members returned to their creative paths away from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act.

As this conversation with Jorma flowed, it moved from his time in the Airplane to his previous appearances there, playing history-making music festivals, his recent solo album, Ain’t In No Hurry, Trey Anastasio, sound quality of recordings and headphones and longstanding friendship with Casady.

JPG: Let’s start with the Jefferson Airplane celebration. How did that come about?

JK: Well, it’s the 50th year of the Jefferson Airplane and all kinds of stuff starts boiling in the cauldron. And, of course, promoters and many of the fans would like nothing more than to see the band get together and…that’s just not gonna happen. There’s a lot of reasons but the most important one, really, is that Grace doesn’t sing anymore. And without Grace, how can you do it?
So, I know this guy Dave Frey, who’s one of the big dogs at Lockn’. I’ve known him for years, and he started to talk about this. And in the beginning Jack and I were a little bit reluctant because…I know how people sell stuff. “It’s an Airplane reunion.” “Oh no, it’s not an Airplane reunion.”

But we got to thinking about it — and I don’t listen to my own stuff very often – but I went back and I listened to some of the Airplane stuff. If you think about the two songs that got us into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” – those are both great songs but they’re like radio songs. They’re like three minutes long. Most of the Airplane things were extremely interesting and very long, and in my opinion the Airplane was really best as a live band.

Then, I started to think about things I wanted to do celebrating some of Grace’s really great writing. Towards the end of the Airplane’s incarnation she was highly influenced by Erik Satie, and her lyrical writing was always from another galaxy. She wrote all this good stuff. So, we picked three songs that will be a moderate surprise we hope for the folks other than “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.”

We picked Rachael Price (Lake Street Drive). My wife is a huge fan of Rachael’s. And I haven’t met Rachael in person yet but I’ve listened to a lot of her music. I’m a huge fan now. We email each other. She seems like a really neat lady. And without putting any burden because she is so much her own artist of “Well, Grace didn’t sound like that…”
We don’t want to necessarily be a cover of our own band. We’ve got a couple days rehearsals before the show and I think Rachael is going to be fantastic in this. In addition we have Larry Campbell and his wife Teresa on the show, and Teresa is a great singer, too. We have some huge talent in this band for this thing. We have Jeff Pehrson who played with Phil Lesh [in Furthur] and his own band. He’ll do a couple of Marty’s songs.

When I talk to all these people I say…because we haven’t rehearsed yet other than Larry, Teresa, Jack and I have…and we have G.E. Smith also. We’re going to try to take some of the more idiosyncratic material and have the songs be recognizable as what they are. As the creative process of all this went on, I’ve gotten more and more excited about it. For example, I just got an email from G.E. He just sent me a Fender Telecaster 12-string, very rare for the guitar geeks out there.

Paul Kantner’s thing as a guitar player. Nobody really talks about what a great guitar player he is but the sound of the band absolutely rests on his, Jack’s and Spencer’s [Dryden] shoulders. As a lead guitar player, I’m soaring along on the top with the singers but that’s the sound of the band.

Without trying to recreate the style of Paul who wrote the book on his own style because – he wasn’t a quote-unquote guitar player like a studio guy — it’s really interesting stuff. There’s a lot of possibilities for this to not only work but to be for us certainly very exciting.

JPG: In other words you’re going to do “White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love” and all of “After Bathing at Baxter’s.”

JK: [laughs] Exactly right. And I would know exactly what you meant. We’ve moved on down the line from “Baxter’s.” That’s funny because if you think about the Airplane’s recording career, it takes off with a folk rock album. Surrealistic Pillow is a real rock ‘n’ roll album. And then there’s everything that came afterwards.

JPG: It goes all over the place but it somehow was glued together.

JK: Yeah, it is somehow glued together in a bizarre kind of way. We were discussing this a little bit. The Airplane, I’m almost talking about it in the third person because it’s been so many years for me but it’s an interesting part of my life because I got to do all these creative things and because of the odd nature of the band and the fact that we never had all these radio hits. We’ve never been called upon to clone ourselves and I don’t mean any disrespect to a band like the Eagles but when the Eagles go on tour they need to play the hits, and that’s what they do. Nobody wants to hear a new take on “Hotel California,” but we can do anything we want. We always could back then and we still can today.

JPG: Going back to “Baxter’s” for a second, I just wanted to you know that when I was in college one of the music professors taught a class on rock ‘n’ roll. It was a very intellectual undertaking of the music, and one day he focused on “After Bathing at Baxter’s.”

JK: It’s an interesting thing. I get it. We kind of joke about that a little bit, too. I graduated college in ’65. When I was going to college, the thought of having a music course in any form of popular music including jazz at a straight liberal arts school would have been anathema. It would have been unthinkable. And now, you can probably get a degree in it.

JPG: So, you’re doing an electric Jefferson Airplane set…

JK: Yes, and the personnel lineup, we’ve got Justin Guip on drums. He’s in our Hot Tuna trio. He’s also an engineer at one of Larry’s production partners. We’ve kind of got a little family thing going together. I really think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

JPG: And Bill Kreutzmann…

JK: Ahhh, yes. Bill’s gonna be definitely on a couple songs at the end of the set. And he’s going to be there for the second day of rehearsal if we can work him in for other stuff. Bill, obviously, is a master at the double drumming thing. The Grateful Dead broke ground with that kind of stuff. So, Bill’s going to be in the mix also.

JPG: And then you’re going to do an acoustic Hot Tuna set with Jack the next day.

JK: That is going to be on one of the main stages. I’ve been to Lockn’ twice now. I was at the first one by myself and then last year it was me and Jack. We did the Triangle Stage, which is the stage – I don’t know how far away it is from the main stage but it’s in a field in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of cool because we went on at 1:30 and all of a sudden it was like Night of the Living Dead. People appeared out of the forest. This time they’re actually going to let us be on the main stage for the acoustic show.

JPG: With Jefferson Airplane’s place in history were you into the political and cultural revolution side of it?

JK: Not in the way that Paul, Grace and Marty were. I was pretty much…the music consumed me more than anything else. I didn’t serve in Vietnam, obviously, but I probably would have under other circumstances but I got in a band and that seemed to make more sense to me. I tell ya, I live in Southeast Ohio where most of the guys my age served and volunteered, weren’t drafted. One of my best friends — I get survivor’s guilt every now and then – he pats me on the shoulder and says, “You’re okay. You made the right choice.”

JPG: I understand that because my dad was in the Air Force, Civil Service and Air Force Reserves, altogether for nearly 40 years, but never ended up going to any war. We joke with him about that but…

JK: …And you want to know something? After all is said and done that’s not a bad thing. My dad and his two brothers served in World War II. But that’s how it goes. The fact that we’re all here to have this conversation is a good thing. Jack’s dad was in that same between the wars bracket. He was in the Air Force also but Jack’s dad was stationed at Wright Patterson for four years. He was an Air Force doctor so all he did was fix people’s teeth. Somebody’s got to do it.

JPG: We’re going through history here and the Airplane were a part of history by playing Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont.

JK: After the fact when you look at that that’s sort of the holy trinity of festivals even though there many others. Monterey Pop was the first one that actually dignified the modern music of the time, which now, of course, is classic rock.

The Airplane played the Monterey Jazz festival (Sept. 17, 1966). We got some criticism for that. Leonard Feather, the guy who was a big jazz reviewer [for the Los Angeles Times at the time detested us. In fact in his review he said, “…about as subtle as a mule kicking in a barn door,” and we used that quote in the ad for our first album. Thanks Leonard.

Anyway, so Monterey Pop was the first thing, and all of a sudden it was like, “Yeah, this is a legitimate art form.”

The summer of Woodstock, there were a number of big festivals and a couple of days before we did that we did the Atlantic City Pop Festival that wasn’t as big as Woodstock but it was one of those big festivals. So, we had taken for granted because the ball was really rolling that the festival thing was happening. We knew some of the people that were putting it on — Mike Lang and some of the guys that were putting on the Woodstock festival. We had been up there a week or so looking at the site before the festival and I remember the stage, which today was so archaic by modern standards but at the time it was like some magnificent fortress. We looked at that thing and thought, “Wow! This is gonna be great!” But then, nobody could have predicted what happened, and for us when we drove in for the show – and historically we went on 18 hours later and didn’t go on until the morning – then we drove out and drove to New York to do “The Dick Cavett Show.” So, we didn’t live at the festival but at the time it’s kind of accepted that that’s what your life is going to be like but the Woodstock thing, really, who knew?

Then, Altamont. We had just done the West Palm Beach Pop Festival (Nov. 28-30, 1969) with the Rolling Stones. We flew to San Francisco and then went to Altamont. I remember because the Stones were going to do that show, and there was a lot of press about where it was going to happen and if it was going to happen…“Is it going to happen at Sears Point?” “Can’t happen at Sears Point.” “Is it going to happen at Golden Gate Park?” “Can’t happen at Golden Gate Park.” All these things that came and went.

I had no idea what was happening up in Altamont. There’s that big highway up there now, 580, and it’s a wind farm. So, when you drive through, even know that’s where it was, how could anybody in their right mind, even before the wind farm, have thought that this was a great place for a festival. Of course, they flew us in a helicopter and everybody knows what happened to the Airplane – Marty got punched, Jack and I played until we couldn’t play anymore. We left before the really bad stuff happened. We couldn’t get a ride out. It’s a funny thing. We always joke about this. If you’re doing a show before the show you’re like a hero. “Oh, would you like an airplane? We’ll send a helicopter. We’ll send a limo…” As soon as you finished your part of the show you can’t get a glass of water. So, when our set fell apart there was no way we could get outta there. The helicopters weren’t flying. I went to the parking with my ex-wife and Spencer [Dryden] the drummer. We found some guy passed out on the back of his Mustang. We woke him up and said, “If you let us drive you and this car to San Francisco, we’ll buy you a Mexican dinner.” And he said, “Okay.” And we did, and that’s how we got out. Good stuff, huh?

Anyway, in terms of trying to put it into perspective there’s probably a lot of ways to parse this and I guess music and stories talk about Monterey at the beginning and Altamont’s the end…maybe. I guess it depends on how creative the writer is. If you think about all the festivals – of course, Monterey was the first you can’t deny that – but if you think of that time period of Woodstock and Altamont and all those other huge festivals were happening those summers, the ones we hear about were either hugely successful or hugely disastrous.

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