July 3, 2006

This ain’t Phish: Hot damn, Hot Tuna is coming to town!

In 1965, Jorma Kaukonen serendipitously summoned his old pal Jack Casady out to San Francisco to join a fledgling band known as Jefferson Airplane. Their work as part of the Airplane’s classic lineup would eventually earn them a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And subsequently, the two will forever be associated with Bay Area music. But, as it happens, the musical trajectory of Casady and Kaukonen actually began on the other side of the country.Hot TunaThe pair first connected while living in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s and soon began making the rounds as part of a band called The Triumphs. Even early on theirs was an eclectic collaboration. As Casady recalls, “My dad was a huge audiophile, so I personally had access to lots of kinds of music growing up. At the time there was also a big bluegrass scene in D.C., and on top of that Jorma and I started getting into artists like Ray Charles and Muddy Waters … so we absorbed all these diverse influences even as we were basically functioning as a teenage cover band.”It is also interesting to consider that Casady, a legendary bass player, actually picked up the instrument through happenstance. “In the early days,” he explains, “I played a ’58 Telecaster bought with money I earned on my newspaper route.” But in 1960, Casady accepted a fateful invitation to fill in at a show for a friend who played bass. It was then he first realized his true musical vocation. Casady admits that his approach to playing bass is unconventional, in part because he originally modeled his style on the left-hand tinkering rhythms of piano players like Jelly Roll Morton. “There weren’t a lot of electric bass influences to copy … there were some in the R&B world, but you have to remember that Paul McCartney didn’t exist then,” Casady says.After The Triumphs were put to rest, Kaukonen increased his guitar competency as he immersed himself in traditional music and rambled around the country. Through a simple twist of fate, Kaukonen ended up in San Francisco at that pivotal moment in time. He reluctantly accepted an offer to join Jefferson Airplane and soon sent for Casady when a bass player was needed. Jefferson Airplane enjoyed enormous success as darlings of the counterculture and played at all the iconic festivals from Monterey to Woodstock to Altamont. But Casady isn’t so sentimental about those oft-idealized times. “I don’t yearn for those days,” he says. “Life moves on, and really, there was no ‘innocence of the era’ to begin with.” Casady admits that the then-fashionable psychedelic drugs (celebrated in the band’s ubiquitous single, “White Rabbit”) “offer a certain window into things,” but he warns that the lifestyle is “not for the long haul.” He says that “unlike some folks who let drugs consume their lives, I always felt like I had a job to do. You know, somebody had to put their fingers on the frets every night and keep the music coming. In the end, music is my conduit to the spiritual world.”Looking for solace from those turbulent times, Casady and Kaukonen splintered from the Airplane and formed Hot Tuna. It’s a project that has always focused on American string music in general but with a particular emphasis on blues. Asked about the origin of the name (the story goes that the band originally called itself Hot Shit), Casady playfully suggests that “no self-respecting band would call themselves that.” But he goes on to explain that he thinks it grew out of someone’s response to a Blind Boy Fuller song that was in their early repertoire. And as Casady remembers, “The main thing was, we had been playing as Jorma and Jack up until the point where we had our first album completed, and we were suddenly under pressure to come up with something better to call ourselves.”It is amazing that this modest little Americana band boasts a career that now spans several decades and includes a number of influential albums. But perhaps most importantly, Hot Tuna continues the musical exploration that Casady and Kaukonen embarked on 48 years ago. When considering all of his many accomplishments, Casady maintains, “I’m most proud of what Jorma and I are doing now. After all these years, we are in a position to delve into many different waters and just enjoy the journey.” The band will perform two sets — a 60-minute acoustic set and then an electric set. There’s no warm-up band, and no smoking except at the bar. It sounds like hot shit to us. Contact the writer at leobeat@leoweekly.com