BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Robert Putignano
No introductions needed here. Jorma Kaukonen.
Robert Putignano for BluesWax: Hi Jorma! I noticed on your latest Hot Tuna Steady As She Goes disc that you covered a tune “Goodbye to the Blues,” is this true?
Jorma Kaukonen: I’ll never say goodbye to the blues Bob, never! Nothing makes me happier than the blues.
BW: I thought so.
I saw your band about eighteen months ago when the latest Hot Tuna disc came out and was blown away by the show and your new drummer Skoota Warner.
JK: Oh yeah, Skoota is really something, we’ve been lucky as we never play with bad musicians, but Warner is special.
BW: I thought Skoota gave the band a new shot in the arm.
BW: Around that same time I interviewed Jack Casady who also told me that this was the best version of Hot Tuna.
JK: I’m completely with Jack about this and even though it’s hard to imagine, but it really gets better and better for us.
BW: Time has been kind to you and Jack, too.
JK: We have to keep moving, as the alternative isn’t pretty.
BW: I recently interviewed Craig Chaquico, who had some very kind words about you.
JK: I haven’t seen Craig for a while, he’s a fine guitarist.
BW: He has a new blues album out.
JK: No kidding, I have to check that out. I know he was doing some New Age stuff for a while, but he’s such a great musician that I’m sure he could not only play the blues, but can play just about any kind of music he wants.
BW: He told me about when he started hanging with you guys and the Starship and how his parents were worried.
JK: I’ll bet they were worried, and probably with some good reasons! That’s pretty funny.
BW: I see Hot Tuna is coming to the Beacon in New York City this weekend for two shows. Will you be performing a lot from the new Steady as She Goes album?
JK: Yes, we are so proud of this new recording. In some ways and because of the diversity that’s on it, it kind of reminds me of Burgers. I don’t typically like to compare records, but both recordings have a lot of different things on it. Though there’s no question that it’s a rock ‘n’ roll record, too.
BW: It does cover a lot of ground for sure. How did you and Barry Mitterhoff hookup?
JK: First off, Barry’s such a great guy and we immediately hit it off. But when I did Blue County Heart in 2002, I wanted to tour behind that record, but I couldn’t get the big dogs like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and others to leave their regular gigs to go on the road with me. The great Dobro player Sally Van Meter recommended Barry as I wanted a mandolin player. Sally and Barry were old friends and told Barry that I might be interested to have him join my band. So Barry and I started to email and talk on the phone, and even before I physically met him I knew he was the right guy.
BW: In a different way I thought Barry was sort of like having Papa John Creach back in the band in that they both gave you a lead instrument to play off of.
JK: Totally! Let me share a Mitterhoff story with you and your listeners. About seven or eight years ago we were playing in Seattle at some weird museum. We played our show and had a great time and when we got off the stage and this guy walks up to Barry and says, “Papa John you were great.” So I said to this guy that I was really glad you liked our show, but I have to tell you two things. One, Papa John was black, and two, he passed away.
BW: Oh my God! How about a good Papa John story?
JK: Okay, as you know when Papa John started playing with us he was probably in his fifties, and to us at the time he really seemed old. But now I’d love to be fifty again. Anyway, he was such a great guy who had already done so much with his career, he was in jazz, he was in movies, he did all the stuff. So when Joey Covington and Marty Balin brought him on board, P.J. immediately embraced our music and jumped into it. He was also like a father to us all and would often tell us not to get too crazy before the shows and stuff like that. My dad couldn’t relate to what I was doing, you know the deal. Papa John was just the best, for a guy who had such a varied background with multiple skills. He jumped into rock ‘n’ roll and gave it one hundred and fifty percent.
BW: First time I saw him was with Hot Tuna, but I didn’t know he was going to be in the band, in fact I knew nothing about Papa John. At the time you only had that first acoustic album out and I thought that’s the show I would see. So I go to the gig and Mississippi Fred McDowell opens, then you guys jump on stage as an electrified four piece and blow the place apart, I was not expecting this at all, but I was thrilled.
JK: We sure had a good time, obviously. The first time we met P.J. was when Covington and Balin brought him up to play with the Airplane at Winterland, he was supposed to sit in with us for a few songs, but he never left!
BW: It’s always great for me finding out all these stories from so many decades ago.
JK: And speaking about Papa John, when we recorded Steady As She Goes we brought in the great Larry Campbell to produce it for us. As you probably know Larry plays all kinds of different instruments too, including the fiddle. So in a lot of respects I thought Larry was channeling Papa John. Larry and Teresa Williams will be on the show with us at the Beacon this weekend, so expect to see some early Hot Tuna tunes [from when Papa John was in the band] performed, along with a lot of other songs. So I expect to hear Papa John speak through Larry Campbell this week, for at least a couple of times.
To be continued…
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
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