By Mike Finkelstein
On Saturday Jorma Kaukonen wrapped up a two-night stand at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, having played four shows in two evenings. It’s interesting to note from his tour itinerary that the stay-over in Santa Monica was sandwiched between gigs in Hawaii and a flight to Japan. That’s a sweeping geographic pivot and a lot of distance to cover — a travel pace that might slow down men half his age (he is now 71). So it really wasn’t too surprising when he announced that he was exhausted. But, although the walk down and up the stairs to the stage may have been a bit of a trudge, the fatigue vanished when it was time to play.
Back in the 60’s and 70’a when rock stars hadn’t yet aged that much, young folks like me wondered, if only momentarily, what an old rock star might look like. How could they still carry the cool? Jorma, who of course played lead guitar in and helped found Jefferson Airplane, does it quite well. He has a gray beard and a thick moustache these days to go with a good head of gray hair, but what remains striking about him is the confidently wild gleam in his eyes above the gold front tooth. Perhaps the eyes and the tooth help personify him into something larger as a blues troubadour than as the psychedelic lead guitarist in the Airplane.
He was in fine voice, too, a rich, expressive bluesy tone with some subtle twang to it.
For this show it was just Jorma finger-picking (metal picks on his thumb and two forefingers) on his signature model Martin guitars, with multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin and assorted other instruments removed from the bountiful walls of McCabe’s backroom (the tenor guitar and ukelele he played still had their price tags hanging).
The interplay between these two was truly impressive. They didn’t showboat, but man, did they ever dovetail together to build a groove that thrived! Several times Jorma would spell out a chord and Barry would expand it with an arpeggio up another octave. It was tasty and a lot like one guy finishing the other’s sentence. At other times Barry would nudge the audience by peeling off some quick-picked, super-precision mandolin licks. On “Good Shepherd” the arrangement was a little tighter and restrained in its meter than the original. After Barry had reworked the melody several times over, the proud and appreciative look on Jorma’s face said everything.
Jorma has been playing the blues since he was a teenager, connecting with a rich heritage of songs that seem to chronicle America from shortly after the Civil War to the present. On Saturday the hour long show drew from his entire career. There were songs from the J.A. years (“Uncle Sam Blues,” “Good Shepherd”), classic early Hot Tuna blues interpretations (“Candy Man,” “I See the Light,” “I Know you Rider”), tunes from the new Hot Tuna album Steady As She Goes (“Vicksburg Stomp,” “Second Chances”), and some great old folk/blues standards (“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “I Know You Rider,” “Red River blues”).
Jorma has an ultra loyal audience, and many of the devotees in the audience have heard the songs countless times live. He has built a large catalog to draw from over the years and when new material comes down the pipe it is worth the wait. One such new number was his own “Second Chances.” It’s a very representative Jorma song with a very deliberate set of attractively arranged minor and major chords. His delivery was calm, soulful and reflective and Barry ran with the embellishments to sweet effect.
On this night, although he may have been tired, Kaukonen was running on road-savvy autopilot. He is such a seasoned pro and an accomplished player that his years of stage pacing and instincts more than compensated for any weariness and kept him in the groove. And having Barry Mitterhoff on stage next to him sure didn’t hurt the effort, either.
Photos courtesy of Hot Tuna.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.