NOTE: This show is SOLD OUT.
Everybody just calls him Jorma. Just like when you’re discussing Cher or Madonna, no further clarification is necessary. The legendary guitarist Jorma Kaukonen is coming back to the East End for a special appearance at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Friday, March 9 at 8 p.m. Get set for a night of acoustic guitar wizardry from one of the great contemporary masters of traditional fingerstyle guitar playing.
As most rock fans know, Jorma was the original lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, the seminal San Francisco acid rock band that shot to superstardom in the late ’60s on the strength of hits like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” Airplane was known for their trippy, exploratory live performances. Jorma played electric guitar with the band all over the world, including at both 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and 1969’s Woodstock Festival. It’s a history that affords him membership in a select pantheon of rock music. Later, Jorma formed the blues-based band Hot Tuna with Airplane’s bass player Jack Casady, and also began recording and touring as a solo act, playing the traditional fingerstyle guitar music that he calls his “first love.”
It’s the style of music that first drew Jorma to his instrument. “I like a lot of music, but I started out playing traditional fingerstyle guitar in 1958, long before I started playing rock and roll.” Jorma was enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio at the time, and remembers being “consumed by the fingerstyle thing.” Fingerstyle guitar, also called finger picking, means that instead of strumming multiple strings at a time, the guitarist plucks individual strings, producing multi-voice textures and flowing rhythms. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Jorma was learning how to do it, many of the originators of traditional blues fingerstyle were still alive and performing: Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson, and, Jorma’s hero, the Reverend Gary Davis.
“I got to see the Reverend play a number of times, both in New York and in California” says Jorma. “He was utterly individual—I’d say one of the most significant musicians of the 20th century.” The Reverend’s very personal technique—he used only the thumb and middle finger of his right hand to pluck the strings—resulted in a unique, bouncy sound that many have sought to emulate. Jorma is a master at summoning the Reverend’s sound from his own guitar, and, over the years, he has recorded a number of the Reverend’s songs, including “I Am the Light of This World,” “I’ll Be Alright,” and “There’s a Table Sitting in Heaven.” These songs are a staple of his live sets, and audience favorites.
“Beyond my children, the thing in my life I’m most proud of is being able to turn so many people on to the music I love, “ says Jorma. He’s cognizant of the fact that it’s largely through the celebrity he gained with Jefferson Airplane that he has been able to keep this music in the public eye—to bring it to people who might not otherwise be aware of it. But he doesn’t experience any cognitive dissonance in that. He notes that Jefferson Airplane itself harnessed a lot of the power of traditional music, and made his subsequent return to his “first love” a natural transition. “You know, a lot of the San Francisco bands like the Airplane and the Grateful Dead, when we started out we weren’t ‘professional musicians,’ we weren’t of the industry—although obviously we became a part of the industry. We drew from a well that was deeply authentic. And, of course, it’s all music—authenticity is a loaded concept.”
One thing is clear, though. There’s a lot of authenticity in someone sitting down and playing traditional finger-style guitar with consummate skill. And that’s what Jorma Kaukonen does.
Hear Jorma Kaukonen live at the Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead on Friday, March 9 at 8 p.m. 631-727-4343, suffolktheater.com.