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For Hot Tuna’s Jack Casady, knowing what Jorma Kaukonen will play next is “the most horrific situation I could imagine”

Jack Casady (L) and Jorma Kaukonen (R) are Hot Tuna.
Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPun/Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPun
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Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPun
Jack Casady (L) and Jorma Kaukonen (R) are Hot Tuna.

Next week, blues and folk duo Hot Tuna are playing a string of shows throughout the WAMC listening area.

The burning core of Hot Tuna’s 50 years of touring, recording, and constant improvisation is a lifelong friendship.

“A student once said to me, you know what, you guys have played so long together – of course, we've been playing together since junior high school in 1957 – you must know what the other guy's going to play. And you know, my answer to that is, that would be the most horrific situation I could imagine,” said Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady.

He’s as eager as ever at 77 to hit the stage with singer-guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.

“The joy of playing with somebody that's creative, like, from my perspective, like Jorma, is that you don't know quite what's going to happen that evening in a certain twist of a phrase or a certain moment and the emotion of the song that evening,” he told WAMC. “It’s why I hate to answer the question ‘what's the best concert,’ you know, because I'm always looking forward to tomorrow night's concert. So once it's done, it's done. It's in the books. And then you tap into the next day. That keeps it as close to close to the bone as possible and as close to life as it can be.”

Casady says Hot Tuna turned the pandemic into an opportunity to further hone their skills. During lockdown in 2020, Kaukonen began a series of Quarantine Concerts streamed live from his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, with Casady even driving out from California to join him for a few.

“From my point of view, of hearing him play all of these years, he really honed his craft and his singing style,” said the bassist. “And his vocals really soared to a different level, because he wasn't fighting the noise that's in a room. It was it like being in a recording studio, but not as stilted as some recording studios can be. So he truly played acoustic. There wasn't any sound reinforcement. Here was a really wonderful sounding hall of his Fur Peace Ranch concert hall, and what I noticed over the weeks that I was home in California, listening to it and putting it up on my big screen TV and listening to the shows that he started to put out, was an intimacy with the instrument that was viewed by an audience that would never really see that otherwise.”

Casady and Kaukonen started Hot Tuna in 1969 while they were playing in legendary psych rock outfit Jefferson Airplane.

“I think the strength of the Jefferson Airplane in the seven years that it existed was the fact that there were so many different viewpoints, musical viewpoints, that came together to form the Jefferson Airplane’s approach to a song,” said Casady. “But the reality is that Jorma and I had always had an interest in the music that grew out of his fingerpicking style like Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, and people like that. But as Jorma started write his own material and make his own observations, those feelings and techniques of those guitar genres that he explored, the somewhat jazz and rhythm and blues and folk music genres that I explored, as we came together in just the format of an acoustic guitar and a bass, we noticed how much freedom we had to really work within that world. And as new material, new original materials started to get folded into that, our set list, that things began to grow and take shape onto their own.”

While less explicitly political than the Airplane, Casady stresses that Hot Tuna was no less engaged with the realities of the day.

“If it's folk music, you're talking about the times you're in,” he told WAMC. “And you’re talking about the rights and the wrongs, the injustices, the cruelty, and the loves that exist in that moment in time, and you're painting a picture in history. And before we all had this mapped out with video and recording, and music, audio and video, it was from one generation to a next, the lessons and observations were handed down through folk music and passed on.”

The duo grew up Washington D.C. Casady’s father, a dentist, was an audiophile who built his own amplifiers for his collection of instruments and LPs.

“He taught me how to solder and build,” said Casady. “My first guitar amplifier we built together, my dad and I, on the dining room table.”

Casady had a voracious appetite for music from a young age.

“When I was 12, 13, 14, and living in Washington DC, the way I heard other kinds of music that I didn't have access to through records was to go down to the Library of Congress and spend a day down there going through and taking from their library records into a little booth and listening to them,” he said. “And I could hear music from all over the world, from rain forest music to Indian music to Iranian music to folk music of England and Ireland and Scottish folk music.”

Casady and Kaukonen played jazz, country, and rock and roll together in a high school band, and became enraptured by the worlds of folk and blues.

“I’d listen to Jelly Roll Morton, and he talked about Storyville, New Orleans, and I’d listen to Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns and Fats Domino and all that New Orleans sound that was coming out of there from DC,” said Casady. “At the same time, I'd listen to all the country music and all the bluegrass music that would come up through the Appalachian, all the folk music. And the storytelling- And my imagination would just be riveted to these stories of places and atmospheres. In the blues world, the juke joints where musicians and people gathered to play music, hear music, and have a good time.”

He began playing professionally as a teenager.

“I'd be in high school, and I'd be – and my high school suffered for it,” laughed Casady. “But I’d be working four nights a week when I was younger, and then a full five, six nights a week. And you'd go in at nine o'clock and play 40 on, 20 off until 10 minutes to two. And then I’d get home about three and then get up at eight for school.”

In the deeply segregated Washington of the 50s and 60s, Casady found acceptance in the city’s Black music scene that he was irresistibly drawn to.

“I found myself a 15, 16, 17 year old young white guy accepted into that world. And all I can do is reflect about it and think, you know, aside from it being a different time, I never had any confrontations in that world, I never had any issues or anything bad happen. It was really pretty pure, and I was accepted just on the fact that I was there to try to play my guitar.”

It’s those memories– long before he ventured out to San Francisco to find fortune and fame in the psychedelic rock scene – that Casady holds most dear.

“I got a four week gig backing up Little Anthony and the Imperials, an African American drummer that played a couple of tours with James Brown, and he was a local DC musician,” said Casady. “And he got into gospel music, playing in Northeast Washington, you know, where I’m a Northwest kid, son of a medical family, a doctor, and I'm playing in an African American gospel band on Sundays with a Hammond organ and a saxophone and gospel singers. You look back on it, you wonder how that happened. And he could have picked other guys to do this, and I got the gig, so I don't- It's interesting how that happens.”

For now, Casady is keeping his eyes set on the next show.

“You keep your feet on the ground,” he said. “I mean, I'm going to put the phone down here and go down to CVS and get some things I need for the road, you know? I mean, you just do- Your life goes on and you partake of life just like everybody else and then you do what your desire is and craftwork.”

Hot Tuna performs in Great Barrington on November 27th, Burlington on November 30th, Albany on December 1st, and Port Chester on December 4th.

For more tour dates and information on the band, click here.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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