I guess every aficionado of folk-blues has a story about where they were when they realized that Jorma Kaukonen existed. For many, the original Hot Tuna album was the crack in the pavement that showed us there was something outside electric music. The roots of the music, roots which went deep down to someplace true and good we’d never been.
I’ve seen Jorma live (you have to call him by his first name,) a few times. The last time was perched on a steep part of a hillside, peering around a tree at the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, as he enthralled thousands thronged to the park to hear his set. So I was determined to make it to his live show at the refurbished Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA. For those not familiar with the old version of the storied locale, imagine 70s era small town Northern California spirituality and hard alcohol–with local rock royalty thrown in the mix, as many successful Bay-Area musicians are settled in the hills of Marin County. The old Sweetwater was an unusual venue, where some nights local bands would sweat it out in a semi-dive bar setting, then on some nights, legendary stars would come in and jam out, either in their own (pricey) sets, or just wandering in off the streets to sit in, rather than go back up the hill to bed.
Among those in county, along with Santana, one or two of Allmans brothers, Grisman, and of course, Garcia, Lesh, Hart et al, was Bob Weir. Weir took on keeping the Sweetwater going–or at least the idea of a music venue in a bar in Mill Valley named that. They’ve been putting on some high quality shows, and true to form, giving some space to some newer, less well-known bands. I was eager to see the place and was not disappointed. The new venue has nothing to do with the old one, other than there’s a bar–but a much nicer one, much classier and more chic. The bar is in a hall-like room, with a lounge and food counter in the lobby. The stage is low, but the lighting and the acoustics in the room smell of money. It’s all low key and nothing to call too much attention to itself, until they went overboard, and did the seating with earth’s cheapest, most uncomfortable, plastic, sunday-go-to-meeting chairs, packed in ass-to-elbow. Good for me that I got there early to get a seat up close, so I got to appreciate those chairs fully waiting for the set to start. Luckily, they didn’t cheese out with plastic cups, and gave me a real, solid piece of quality glassware, so once the music began I could sip my scotch in style as I listened to Jorma pick.
I was a kid when I heard ‘Hesitation Blues’ coming out of the radio for the first time. Even stranger, I knew a 14 year old who could actually pick the tune. I was just trying to strum some chords and play a Beatles song, but this was like ragtime piano on the guitar. Mind-boggling, and I guess I was hooked. It took me awhile to trace it all back, the blues within the 50s rock and roll, within the rock of The Stones and others, traced back to these forms, the 12 bar blues, then traced back to Reverend Gary Davis–to the Piedmont, to country blues fingerpicking. But when I did, and heard Van Ronk and then reheard Jorma, I realized it’s almost uncanny what he’s been able to do as far as bridging a straight interpretation of the old blues, with a modern perspective (and with the help of psychedelics at some point,) to create a sound that has authenticity and heart and doesn’t pander.
Jorma is as relaxed onstage as his voice sounds on his recordings. Where he got this calmness from I don’t know, but he clearly enjoys what he does, he’s just not going to get agitated about it. With many of these rock icons now in their 70s, they become like elder statesmen. It really is like seeing these old guys play the blues. Kaukonen (there I did it,) really takes it easy, laying back and relying on the basic chord changes and thumb picking for much of the time, leaving it to his partner, Barry Mitterhoff, to embellish and fill in with mandolin, tenor banjo and tenor guitar.
He performed the whole evening on the same guitar, his Martin M-30 Jorma Kaukonen Custom Artist Edition. I scoped it as intently as I could from the audience before the show, as it was in a stand stage center the whole time. There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on about how it looks, until I read that this model is an M shape body: a jumbo width, with 000 depth, and a 25.4 scale length. The M-30 custom Martin Guitar also has an extra large soundhole, which helps gives it a distinctive look, something subtle, but striking, like the understated inlay. It’s an Indian Rosewood guitar; combine this with the rare Italian Alpine spruce soundboard, the large soundhole and 5/16” scalloped forward-shifted X braces, and there you have that full tone, the nice round, even bass he gets, and the means to enunciate mid and treble ranges as he does. For a guitarist who uses a lot of counterpoint, this all makes sense, along with the 1 3/4” nut and the modified V neck. I’m starting to get a serious hard-on for this guitar.
Jorma famously played a Gibson Jumbo for the seminal Hot Tuna recording, but apparently had owned an M model Martin at some point. Martin Guitars quotes him saying that he based his signature Jorma model on his friend David Bromberg’s signature M-42, and after hearing Tony Rice play Martin’s ‘Clarence White’ D-28, which has the enlarged 4 5/16” soundhole. At this point, there are so many ‘Custom Artist Edition’ Martin’s that no one will care when they finally name one after me. By the way, have you tried out the ‘Norman Blake’ 000-18? Now there’s a sweet picking guitar.
In typical laid back fashion, Jorma retunes between tunings without muting, just another of his assertions of his own style, in line with how he sings the blues in his trademark, unaffected way, without kowtowing to some stereotype of how a blues singer sounds. He sings calmly, with the ability to augment his vocal power effortlessly as needed. This is reflected in his fluid switch from almost casual timekeeping with his picking hand, characterized not so much as rock-solid, but as river current clear, to searing lead riffs, that seem to be coming from a different player on a different instrument. He plays with fingerpicks and these lead runs are played fingerstyle as opposed to switching to using the thumbpick as a plectrum.
This lead playing came to the forefront when Bob Weir jumped on stage to run through a set of Dylan tunes, with Mitterhoff and Kaukonen taking turns soloing. Jorma’s solos were lovely, gutsy and again effortless, unpretentious. Just a guy doing what he does well.
Weir provided, perhaps unintentionally, the comic relief for the evening, with Jorma bemusedly egging on the ‘crazy old coot’ routine Weir has taken on in recent years, elder statesmen to the tripped out generation. But when the music starts and he sings, he’s transformed, his personal rhythmic and vocal style honed by thousands of performances in all states of mind. Here at his own club, it’s the state of mind “yeah, you paid $70 bucks to get in here, but this is my living room, and you’ve always wanted to just hang out with me, so I’m gonna do what I love best”, singing his guts out on tunes he loves to interpret. Being a Dylan devotee myself, I couldn’t complain about that attitude, as he really is one of the best interpreters of Dylan after Jerry. I heard Weir do ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ in Golden Gate park during ‘ Hardly Strictly’, the year he was backed up by my buddies ‘Little’ Stevie Coyle and James Nash with their band The Waybacks (known for those sessions behind the scenes as ‘The Weirbacks’). Gillian Welch and David Rawlings joined them onstage, and Gillian, David, and James took turns singing verses. Sorry kids, but next to Weir they were just scouts at a campfire. He was the 70s rock icon, selling that lyric personally to every individual in the arena, like a drug-pusher confidently making a killing in the nose bleed section of the stadium.
So it was at the Sweetwater, with Jorma and Barry holding up the Hot Tuna end of the deal and Bobby flailing at the Deadhead end of the spectrum, San Francisco sound all the way, by the guys who invented it, making ‘Maggie’s Farm’ a rollicking celebration, and delivering a smoldering version of ‘Most of the Time’. The delivery of that song had to wait a moment, while Weir had to suddenly run off stage to get his lyrics ‘cheat sheet’ (we’re all just hangin’ out, right?), leaving his guitar leaned against Jorma’s leg. Jorma filled the time by breaking into an impromtu version of ‘FreightTrain’, playing the first part of the tune as usual in the first position in C, then moving it up the neck to D, almost the same fingering, then similarly, up the neck to E, with Barry plucking along crazily. I guess the closest I’ll get to just hangin’ with Jorma, unless I make it out to his Fur Peace Ranch someday.
Jorma is one of the real bluesmen, and one of the last ones standing as far as presenting something true, that he became devoted to long before there was any money or marketing strategy involved. Most likely, he figured he’d be playing bar blues most of his life, like any other musician. The whole fluke of the success of Jefferson Airplane, and the anomaly of how street level music made it into the charts in the 60s, and ultimately gave him the platform for a lifelong career, and the opportunity to make a contribution to shaping the culture of guitar in the modern era, must seem amusing to him. I’m sure he’s grateful, and cognizant of how lucky he is to have his gift and be able to share it, and he’s still playing blues in a bar, but the whole time he just seems amused – just relaxed and having a good time. Like his music sounds.