Sea Child (from the album Burgers)
Fifty years. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady have been playing music together for half a century, since their boyhood days growing up in Washington, D.C. The pair went on to become two-fifths of Jefferson Airplane, helping to define the late-'60s San Francisco scene with mega-hits like "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit." Increasingly enamored with traditional, acoustic bluesmen like the Rev. Gary Davis and Jelly Roll Morton, and seeking an outlet for Kaukonen's finger-style guitar picking, the pair started Hot Tuna as a side group in 1969. It didn't take long to catch on.
"Hot Tuna has always been my main project, even back in the '60s," says bassist Casady on the phone from Peekskill, N.Y., where they kicked off the two-week tour that will bring them to the Windjammer this Monday. "As far as giving me the most satisfaction and the most honesty within the music, the material and musical approach of Hot Tuna has always been the most satisfying. You do other projects because you want some diversity and want to try different directions, but Hot Tuna's where I really get to do what I love on the instrument."
Apart from a break between 1978 and 1986, Hot Tuna have consistently toured and performed since their inception. They distinguish between "acoustic" and "electric" shows when they play nowadays, an indication of their vast catalog that's covered everything from swampy, Delta blues to thrashabilly rock 'n' roll.
Rounding out the current electric ensemble are avant-garde mandolin-player Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Erik Diaz. The group recently played to an elevated crowd at Bonnaroo before taking off for a three-show run in Alaska.
"People are just wonderful up there, not to mention the salmon," says Casady. "I did a bunch of hiking, and the sun just circled around the sky."
Both Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers, Casady and Kaukonen have always run with a crowd of America's best musicians. That's Casady playing bass on Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," and he played in a short-lived sideband with Mickey Hart and Jerry Garcia. For his 2003 solo release Dream Factor, Casady recruited a laundry list of respected performers, including Ivan Neville and Warren Haynes, who plays throughout the album.
Over the years, Casady's sound has evolved from his definitive "lead bass" of the '70s to a more comfortable supporting role that allows him to subtly embellish. The first half of his conversation with City Paper was a discussion of tweaking and achieving the perfect tone from his instrument, evidence that sound quality is and has always been his passion. He's designed a "Jack Casady Signature Bass" with instrument-maker Epiphone, and it's the bass he plays on stage today.
"I wanted one really fantastic pickup right in the sweet spot," says Casady. "I'm a low impedance guy — the theory being that you get a broader spectrum of tone. I like developing an acoustic-like sound on a semi-hollow bass, and it works very well with an electric band."
Along with the Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna were one of the first bands to reintroduce roots music to the mainstream. Casady sees promise in the current wave of alt-country music, with young bands "looking deeper into the catalogs of songwriting about America," he says. "It's what keeps the tradition alive, whether they approach it and play it in the traditional acoustic format or fold it into a more modern electric sound."
Both Casady and Kaukonen play an integral role in "keeping the tradition alive," through frequent lessons they offer at Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio's Appalachian foothills. They regularly host weekend retreats where pickers and players can spend a few days jamming and soaking in tips from the masters.
"I think that teaching has done more in the last ten years to sharpen our craft work and technique to help us understand the music that we play," says Casady. "When you're required to teach and explain things that you've done, quite honestly, I've had to go back and reassess how I did them. I love to think that I teach music and just happen to play bass."
And play a thundering bass he does. Monday's show should be a fine schooling on rock from the pair that wrote the book on how to roll.