Photo by Scotty Hall.

Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna Prepare to Electrify the Wanee Festival

11 years ago the Allman Brothers Band hosted their first Wanee Festival at the picturesque Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL. Unsurprisingly, the iconic Southern rock group invited plenty of friends with similar approaches to music to join them there throughout the years.


Photo by Scotty Hall.

The Allman Brothers eventually called it quits in 2014, but their festival lives on with those friends and a healthy dose of ABB side projects. It’s 12th edition will take place this weekend, April 14-16, at the same location it has always called home.

One of those longtime friends is Hot Tuna, the blues rock powerhouse that guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady originally founded as a spin-off from their other band, Jefferson Airplane. The Airplane may have landed long ago, but Kaukonen, Casady and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff (who joined in 2002) have continued to fly as Hot Tuna.

The group will be joined by Steve Kimock, an exquisite guitarist best known for his work with latter-day Grateful Dead projects like RatDog, when they plug in at Wanee this Saturday . I caught up with Kaukonen ahead of the festival to discuss the upcoming show, his friendship with Casady, reviving the Jefferson Airplane canon, the aspirations of the 1960s and more.

You’ve got an Electric Hot Tuna show with Steve Kimock coming up at Wanee. How will that be different from other Hot Tuna shows without Kimock?

Kimock always brings his own thing to whatever’s going on. It’s normally just a trio without Steve, but with Steve it’s a trio plus one. So I haven’t picked the songs for it yet, but–because Steve is such an amazing sideman–we’ll do stuff where he can be both tasty and tasteless.  So we’ll probably have taste and excess. What’s not to like about two guitar players?

Will you be keeping it to the Hot Tuna catalog or will you be moving out into other territory with Steve?

I don’t think so. We’re gonna keep on going with the Hot Tuna catalog. Although I have to tell you, I haven’t talked to Steve about it  yet. If he’s got some magic that he wants to bring in himself too, then obviously that would be welcome.  So at this moment it’s the Hot Tuna catalog, but if Steve brings something he wants to do, we’ll do it.  

We’ve been so honored to be a part of the Wanee Festival for a number of years.  It’s such a treat to be a part of it, and I’m really looking forward to it again this year as always

You and Jack Cassidy obviously have been friends for a very long time. How did two kids from Washington, D.C. end up pioneering psychedelic rock over in San Francisco?

We just got lucky with that, obviously.  We started playing in a band in 1958, and when I got in the Airplane we were looking for a bass player. I just figured I couldn’t imagine anybody that I’d rather have back in my world again than Jack. So I called him up. I mean we were just so lucky. It was just fortuitous circumstance that enabled us to not only start playing together, but to still be playing together.  

Hot Tuna have been on the road for a long time now with these electric and acoustic shows. What’s the big difference between these electric shows and these acoustic shows, other than the instrumentation?

Well, we always sound like us. Some of the acoustic material translates into the other format, but the electric shows are different songs.  I wouldn’t do electric songs in an acoustic format because a lot of the stuff is dynamics that the electric guitar brings to the table.  Some of the tunes we do are the same like “I See the Light” or “True Religion.” That’s pretty much similar.  But then there’s just a lot of songs, like rock ‘n’ roll songs, that just don’t translate well to acoustic music.  

I know you’ve got a lot of cool things going on at your ranch, the Fur Peace Ranch, these days. The Psylodelic Gallery, in particular, sounds pretty interesting.  Can you talk a little bit about what that is?

It’s mostly a learning facility, a musical school.  But we also have our Psylodelic Gallery on site. My wife just put up a new show yesterday, so it’ll open in a couple days, of Jerry Garcia’s original art.  It’s in a pretty large silo. I’m guessing it’s maybe 60 feet by 35 or 40 feet. Two stories. We have a light show and all kinds of stuff. So we feature art from the 60s and related stuff like that. I mean some of the stuff that Jerry did, obviously, is more recent than the 60s, but it has to do with 60s people. So I just helped her hang the pictures yesterday. There’s some really wonderful original Jerry Garcia stuff.  And the last exhibit we just took down was of three of the great photographers from San Francisco: Baron Wolman, Jim Marshall and Herb Greene. It’s all stuff that has to do with that time period and the people that came out of that time. It’s really neat stuff.  

Jefferson Airplane celebrated 50 years in 2015, I know there was a celebration show at Lockn’ Festival. Are there any plans to revive the Airplane tunes in any way over the next couple years?

No, no.  We did it for my birthday show at the Beacon Theater in November of last year. It was such an honor to be able to work with Larry [Campbell] and Teresa [Williams] and [Lake Street Dive singer] Rachel Price and people like that, but  no. We’re done. If I make it to the 100 year anniversary then maybe I’ll do it again.

Looking back to 1960s San Francisco, your generation had a lot of aspirations. The Summer of Love had a lot of aspirations.  When you look at America today, do you think we’ve made any progress toward realizing them?

No, not really.  The Summer of Love, and I don’t mean this in a negative kind of way, but the Summer of Love was a media event. The San Francisco thing technically, I guess, it lasted for a few months. It was a magical time of discovery, and those discoveries have been made. We need to make some new discoveries now.  We need to move on.  I don’t see it at this particular moment.

I believe that the future’s safe with music and art and all this kind of stuff. Time is always moving on, and there’s a lot of good people in the world and in our country. But as far as whatever it looked like was gonna happen in that summer, I don’t see that happening again in today’s time. But you never know.  

Are there any plans to come coming through New Orleans with Hot Tuna some time soon?

You know something, I haven’t been to New Orleans in a long time and I would love to.  The last time I was there was House of Blues and I’m guessing that was probably 6 or 7 years ago.  I don’t see anything on the books this year, but I love New Orleans and I would love to get back there.