Pete Townshend famously wrote, at age twenty, that he hoped he’d die before he got old (he has gotten encroaching deafness instead), and indeed, few musicians from rock’s classic era have carried vital careers into senior-citizen territory. Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan are prominent exceptions–but give a listen as well to Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. In 2002, Kaukonen released a successful album of 1920s and 1930s country songs called Blue Country Heart. He has since signed with the folk label Red House and continues to perform and record.
Jorma Kaukonen was always the folkiest of Jefferson Airplane’s members, a tendency he further explored in the band’s acoustic blues offshoot, Hot Tuna, and in a series of solo releases in the 1980s and 1990s. In a way, he returned to the San Francisco folk coffeehouse scene, where he had played acoustic blues in the style of Reverend Gary Davis before coming over to the electric side after he attended a rehearsal of an early version of Jefferson Airplane. But his recent music is compelling in its continued development.
Its overall effect might be described as luminous. It’s relaxed in a way that creeps up on mystical enlightenment. How did Kaukonen get to this point? He’s managed to hone the different kinds of expertise he’s developed over his long musical life and to combine them in ways that seem spookily natural. As an acoustic artist, he has played four types of pieces: old acoustic blues and country songs, originals based on those models, meditative guitar instrumentals, and non-blues songs of a philosophical cast. By now he’s made them all flow.
From America’s blues and country treasure chest Kaukonen has dug deep and retrieved songs like the Delmore Brothers’ “Nashville Blues” (“The people here/they treat me fine/they give me beer/and they give me wine”). Recently he’s tapped the song catalog of one of the great underrated modern acoustic blues songwriters, Roy Book Binder, and all his blues and country pieces have the kind of rhythmic ease that comes only after a few decades of getting into the basic beats. He’s always been a formidable guitarist, and his instrumental pieces are subtle and detailed.
But it’s Kaukonen’s recent originals like “Heart Temporary” that really draw you in. A lot of them have inspirational lyrics of the sort that seem blandly simplistic unless you happen to have the authority and the musical ease to get away with them, both of which he has. In this case, inspirational lyrics carry the wisdom of old age.
Jorma Kaukonen comes to the Ark on Friday, October 7.