Hall of Famer, Jorma Kaukonen, returns to Cincinnati

Nov 15, 2012

Like many Americans, Jorma Kaukonen is thankful to have a job these days.  He is even more thankful that it is the same job he has had for more than 50 years.

It might be hard to imagine, but Kaukonen, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, will turn 72 next month.

He has a young daughter and a teenage son, plays more than 200 dates each year with different musicians (Barry Mitterhoff joins him Sunday at the 20th Century in Oakley), and runs the Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio, where people flock for guitar lessons.

“For better or worse, as you probably know, self-employed people don’t get days off,” Kaukonen laughs as he prepared to play in Carson City, Nev., recently. “But I’ll be home next week, and I have a 6-year-old daughter and we’ll be together then, but she doesn’t know any different and that’s the way it is.”

Little Izze Kaukonen might not know any different, but her father has not only seen the world, he has helped shape a part of it in his own way. While he was a key member of San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene with the Airplane, when the amps were put away for the night, Kaukonen would sit with Jack Casady, his bass playing bandmate, and play acoustic tunes, most notably those of the Rev. Gary Davis, for hours on end.

The Washington, D.C. native left the West Coast in the mid 1980s, and despite having lived there for more than 20 years, has a different perception when he returns to play.

“In some ways, San Francisco was never really home to me,” he says. “I’ve been out of (there) as a dweller for long enough that now it’s a charming place when I go as a tourist, see and do stuff that I never would have done when I lived there.

“Back in the ’60s, we were so full of ourselves ... I wouldn’t go to Fisherman’s Wharf of any of that stuff. Doing tourist things would have been beneath the importance of my existence.”

Kaukonen laughs like a man who no longer takes himself too seriously. Experience will do that if you’re wise enough to learn along the way. The arrogance of youth is replaced by the gratitude of longevity.

“I was just at the Love for Levon (Helm) benefit,” Kaukonen says. “John Hiatt was there; John Prine, we shared a dressing room, there were literally dozens of people like that. And the good news for all of us is that we are able to do what we love.

“Now Tommy Emmanuel, great guitar player, told me that one of the things that Chet Atkins told him before he passed away was take care of yourself because if something happens that you can’t do what you love, it’s going to really feel miserable. And we’re all here doing it, so we’re not miserable.”

Kaukonen takes care of himself (“Lots of naps,” he says) and believes he’s blessed with good genetics as well. He also learned an important lesson from his father.

“I’ve told this story many, many times,” he says. “My father retired when he was 61 or 62; he worked for the government, he loved his job. He wasn’t one of those guys who was looking to retire. When he was out of the government – he was in the foreign service, he traveled around – he could no longer do what it was that he wanted to do.

“And he sort of spent the rest of his life, in some respects, at loose ends, trying to find that something again. I don’t know if he did or he didn’t, my take is he didn’t. But the good news for those of us who do this, in some way we can stay connected to this for our whole lives.”

“This” is the drug of choice for Kaukonen and his contemporaries: music. It’s why the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones celebrated their 50th anniversary as bands this year. It’s why Willie Nelson is on the bus at age 79. It’s probably why Bob Dylan plays as many gigs each year as Kaukonen does, but who really knows why Dylan does anything?

Sunday will be Kaukonen’s second trip to town this year; the acoustic Hot Tuna lineup played here in March. One of the striking aspects of that show was how much Kaukonen, Casady and Mitterhoff seemed to enjoy themselves.

“That’s because it is great fun,” Kaukonen says, talking about being on stage. “As the great Roy Book Binder always says about gigs and stuff like that: ‘I get to play the guitar and talk about myself all night. What could be better?’ ”

Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitterhoff; Steve Kimock opens, this Sunday, 20th Century, 3021 Madison Road, Oakley. $30, $25, $20. 513-731-8000; jbmpromotions.com; the20thcenturytheatre.com.

Email Bill Thompson