Headed to Tennessee, Hot Tuna--the band he and bassist Jack Casady co-created in 1970--were a featured act at last weekend's Bonnaroo. When that festival ended, he was to get back on the bus and drive clear across the country, eventually arriving at the Fox Tucson Theatre this Saturday for an evening of Acoustic Hot Tuna.
At 66, he hardly needs the hassle or expense that comes with being this kind of road warrior. "But how else can I bring all of my toys?" he cracks, referring to all the guitars, pedals and effects that are part of his entourage. Back in the '70s, when electric Hot Tuna shows were known as much for their volume as musicianship, "We were not only full of ourselves," he chuckles, "but our pile of equipment as well."
Kaukonen would rather drive than fly, because he also loves seeing and connecting with what he refers to as "the face of America." This can't help but keep Hot Tuna's acoustic take on traditional folk and country blues as fresh today as it was when he and Casady first began. Even though Kaukonen refers to acoustic as an "elastic term," what Acoustic Hot Tuna performs is true American roots music, presented with few of the trappings that tend to accompany fortune and fame.
This Saturday, Hot Tuna's Tucson audience can expect to hear several tunes that defined the group in its earliest phase. Back then, he and Casady invented Tuna as a means of seeking refuge from all the glamour and chaos that came with being a part of Jefferson Airplane, the most commercially successful of the San Francisco psychedelic bands. In fact, he cites Hot Tuna's self-titled first LP, recorded live in a Bay Area club, as his favorite Tuna recording.
"We were the first rock musicians to do that," he says with a hint of accomplishment and pride, "to turn people on to that kind of traditional music."
Then there is the matter of Casady. Although Kaukonen has a diverse solo career, it is his relationship with Casady and Casady's on-stage presence that makes this music and its presentation.
"Next year, Jack and I will have played 50 years together," he says, in awe of this simple fact. It's a friendship that predates the Airplane, back to their days as teens growing up in Washington, D.C.
"(Musically) he and I have gone a lot of different places together and with a lot of different musicians." There has perhaps never been a more extraordinary relationship between guitarist and bass player as the one they have cultivated this past half-century. "It's true he and I have not recorded in some time. But that's because when we get together like that, I want to make sure there is a space for Jack to really shine."
Kaukonen is also clear that the band continues to evolve. The musical conversations and journeys between Casady and him now include working with Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin and tenor banjo. Mitterhoff is a veteran of several top-shelf bluegrass and newgrass bands, including Tony Trischka's Skyline. "Barry has injected a whole new dimension into how Jack and I play together. He adds another texture to our musical scene."
When he isn't touring, Kaukonen's scene also includes Fur Peace, a 114-acre guitar camp/ranch he and his wife run six months out of the year, in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. It's an ambitious undertaking, now 10 years running, where musicians of all stripes--from adults in weekend bar bands to hot shot teenage prodigies "are totally immersed in music for four days." Guest "teachers" include friends and practitioners, like Casady, David Bromberg and Pinetop Perkins, who at 93, "may be a little slow on his feet, but can still do it up on piano."
In addition to Hot Tuna being this week's star attraction, the historic Fox Theatre itself will also be on display. After more than a decade of raising interest, money and public awareness, the Fox, after a handful of successful shows, is finally ready to compete in the marketplace.
Concert promoter Live Nation (formerly Evening Star) is supplying the Fox with a steady dose of star talent for the summer and beyond. Although the summer season is typically slow for Tucson, July will feature Stephen Stills and Dave Mason on a double bill, while August will showcase three more shows, including Dweezil Zappa playing the music of his late father, Frank.
"I've known Skip Rickert, who is running the Fox, since his days as Stevie Ray Vaughn's road manager," says Danny Zelisko of Live Nation, "and I really like what they've done with the hall. I was in Tucson for the Lindsey Buckingham show, and there was a real sense of excitement in being downtown for that."
Zelisko says he would like to do 12-18 shows a year at the Fox. "The key is to be able to get the acts on a Friday or a Saturday," he says, acknowledging how Tucson is often bypassed by artists or their management, looking for larger markets. Fortunately, with Hot Tuna in this weekend, this will not be the case.