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Kaukonen: Just a Humble Axe-man 

Hot Tuna big fish still impressing fans with fretwork

"I consider myself an intermediate-level guitar player with a lot of experience," Jorma Kaukonen says modestly. "I don't do a lot of stuff that anybody can't learn given the time to do it." Legions of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fans would take issue with that statement, as would most guitar players. Kaukonen is one of the best acoustic fingerpickers working today, and his work both in traditional blues and rock have earned him accolades for nearly four decades.

Kaukonen is a disciple of the Rev. Gary Davis, whom Kaukonen first got interested in because of the depth and quality of the Reverend's music. "It was just his content, the spiritual energy that was portrayed in his music," the guitarist says. "He's a very spiritual man, a very powerful man, and an absolutely brilliant singer and guitarist."

Kaukonen did not take lessons from Davis, as has been reported. "I didn't have the five dollars an hour he was charging at the time," the guitarist laughs. He got Davis lessons second-hand from a friend while attending Ohio's Antioch College. Kaukonen got a job in NYC after college and got to see Davis perform in New York, where the latter was living at the time.

The guitarist migrated to San Francisco in the 60s and joined a fledgling psychedelic band. Kaukonen's suggestion was to name the band Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane as a goof on Blind Lemon Jefferson. Shaving off the first half of the alias and enlisting friend and bassist Jack Casady to join, Jefferson Airplane was home to Kaukonen for the next seven years. When it ceased to be fun on any level, he quit in '72. "The good news," Kaukonen says, "is that the Airplane thing has enabled me to be a pretty successful folk musician most of my life."

The guitarist got back to his acoustic blues roots with Hot Tuna, founded in '70 as a side project with Casady. "Jack's my oldest pal. We've been playing together since the late '50s. He has an intuitive way to go to what I consider interesting places."

Hot Tuna broke up the first time in "78. Kaukonen says that the two never said they were breaking up the band, but just quit playing together for a while because their lives diverged. The band had a "reunion" in "83, began playing acoustic music together again and never really quit. "One of the best things with the two of us is that we've played together so long that we really read each other well," he says.

Hot Tuna is branching out, however, adding mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff to the lineup and booking bluegrass festivals. Kaukonen has said that his rock past has kept him out of the more authentic festivals. But a gig at Merlefest last year earned him a slot this year and one at the Gray Eagle festival as well.

When not picking with Casady, Kaukonen and wife Lillian run the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, teaching people to learn how to play music in a non-intimidating fashion.

The guitarist believes that the finger-picking music he plays evolved from guys sitting on the back porch playing guitars. "That's the way I learned, and that's the way I try to teach it," Kaukonen says. "Hey, look, you can learn to pick the guitar -- it just takes time, and a little dedication."

Being damn talented at it doesn't hurt, of course.

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady -- i.e., Hot Tuna -- play the Neighborhood Theatre this Saturday. Bay Area favorites Box Set open. Tickets are $25 and the doors open at 7pm.

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