LEXINGTON, Ky. — Few artistic alliances have weathered the years with more durable credibility than the one Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady have forged for more than half a century.
During the mid- to late 1960s, the guitarist/bassist team formed the backbone of Jefferson Airplane, piloting the lauded West Coast band through its most extreme psychedelic jams and its earthiest folk-blues grooves. Both are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees for their adventures.
But well before the Airplane grounded itself in 1973, Kaukonen and Casady were furthering their rootsier profile with the side project known as Hot Tuna. As the decade progressed, the band morphed into and out of various electric guises — some of which bordered on metal-heavy personas. But the finest and most lasting ones were extensions of acoustic music built around Kaukonen’s love of blues greats such as the Rev. Gary Davis, his own variation on traditional guitar finger-picking and Casady’s expansion of the electric bass’ stylistic and melodic possibilities.
“Jorma has really had a huge impact on allowing me to play bass in somewhat of a different style,” Casady said. “This is particularly true in Hot Tuna’s acoustic format, where Jorma is playing with a thumb and two fingers. That keeps the pulse and the meter going within a song. It keeps him from playing like a linear guitarist.
“With that in mind, I can lift myself out of the normal range of the bass and inject a little more melody into the music, and explore different registers on the bass because the bottom end is always there on the guitar.”
The duo’s personal and professional bond goes back to well before the first flights of Jefferson Airplane.
“We met somewhere around 1958,” Casady, 67, said. “I was about 13 or 14. We all lived in Washington, D.C. Jorma was good friends with my brother and would come over to our house for these record-listening sessions. We listened to bluegrass. We listened to rockabilly and blues. Then I found out he played guitar and he found out I played guitar. That’s when we struck up a friendship.”
A new chapter in that friendship was unveiled this spring with the release of “Steady as She Goes,” the first album of new studio songs by Hot Tuna in more than 20 years. That might suggest the group has been largely dormant in recent decades. Casady insists the musicians spent the time “maturing” as players and staying active on the road.
“We’ve never stopped playing live,” he said. “We always do 100 to 150 shows a year. Jorma plays solo a lot, too. He also has a whole separate career as a (guitar) teacher — which I contribute to, as well — at his Fur Peace Ranch in southeast Ohio. So there has been a lot going on.
“But for Hot Tuna, the thing was we didn’t want to go into the recording studio and simply mimic ourselves. I think we have been maturing as musicians, especially through all the teaching. We accumulated more knowledge and worked more in our own personal styles to improve our individual playing. So the timing was right to put all this to a test and make a new album. I don’t think that timing was there even a few years ago.”
Part of that timing included finding the right producer (guitarist Larry Campbell, who essentially became part of the band during the recording sessions) and the right recording setting (Levon Helm’s famed studio in Woodstock, N.Y.).
The album is full of familiarity and surprise. It explores 70-year-old Kaukonen’s continued fascination with the music of the Davis through a reading of “Mama Let Me Lay It on You.” The tune features fiddle work from Campbell that recalls the late Tuna/Airplane instrumentalist Papa John Creech, and the churchy soul-funk of the Kaukonen original “Mourning Revisited” neatly employs Casady’s solid bass support. Also of note is the album-closing cover of Papa Charlie McCoy’s “Vicksburg Stomp,” which plays off the animated playing of Tuna mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Skoota Warner.
“The record was just a joy to make,” Casady said. “My objective, as always, was to form the foundation of the songs within a creative atmosphere and really give something solid and concrete so that Jorma could work on his vocals and lead guitar playing.
“And, of course, Levon’s studio sounds so wonderful. It’s in this huge wood barn, with a sound that is real comfortable to hear your instrument in. So we just set everybody up in a circle and played the songs.”