Future Past: Hot Tuna Joins Stellar Bill for Fifth Annual Dark Star Jubilee

Festival season is upon us, and with it come a whole bunch of tropes — hula hoops! rage sticks! — as well as all-important reminders that good music is inseparable from a sense of community.

The fifth annual Dark Star Jubilee takes over Legend Valley in Thornville, Ohio, this weekend (about 30 minutes east of Columbus). Helmed by Dark Star Orchestra, the much-beloved re-interpreters of the Grateful Dead’s live canon, the festival taps into that nameless cultural identity that’s remained so closely tied to the Dead’s musical legacy.

The bill is rounded out by Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, The Wailers, Melvin Seals, Hot Tuna and other bands. Scene caught up with Jorma Kaukonen, Ohioan and founding member of Hot Tuna, to talk about his band and what lies in store for the weekend ahead. In a word: It’s all about energy.

“When all this stuff started out, you know, those of us that are still alive could never have conceived in a million years that we would have gotten this old,” Kaukonen says. “There was an interesting cultural phenomenon in the ‘60s, in the music, in the theater — and not in mainstream kind of stuff — in the art, in the poetry, that was inextricably intertwined with the social upheaval and events on the time...I just don’t see that happening. I don’t see that sort of intense cultural unity that happened for a brief period of time.”

It’s an endearing historical throughline to think about. What events like the Jubilee and other like-minded festivals conjure up for fans is a wormhole to that unquantifiable cultural touchstone. “A lot of people are still chasing that dream,” Kaukonen says.

It wasn’t that long ago, this magic moment in American culture. Just a half-century, really. Thinking about it for a second, it’s worth remembering how blessed we remain in 2016 that a lot of those people who created that wave are still with us. That’s where the Jubilee comes in. Hot Tuna, a spoke in the great wheel of this weekend, provides an immediate gateway to the past, present and future of rock ‘n’ roll.

Hot Tuna came together during a Jefferson Airplane touring hiatus in 1969. The two bands functioned in tandem for a while, with Hot Tuna often opening for Jefferson Airplane all over San Francisco. Within a year or so, the Airplane trip began to wind down, and Hot Tuna grew into more of an independent outfit.

The two bands didn’t function like other rock ‘n’ roll bands of the time, though. Weird time signatures and songwriting structures — the bands’ approaches to live music resembled a cubist painting in some ways. “I think a lot of it might have been inspiration from those wacky West Coast jazz guys, like Charles Lloyd,” Kaukonen says. (Also sort of borrowing from the jazz world, Kaukonen used the word “blow” where others might use “jam” to refer to live improvisation.)

Over the course of the past few decades, Hot Tuna has maintained a pretty commanding presence in the national jam circuit. The makeup of the band has always been fluid, though many would say that “Hot Tuna” is shorthand for “Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady.” 

On the Jubilee bill, Hot Tuna appears in both its electric and acoustic forms. This dichotomy harkens back to the earliest incarnations of the band, when they would roll out a little bit of both flavors during opening sets at Airplane shows.

On the electric side, Hot Tuna shows up as a trio (with Justin Guip and Casady), which allows for open-ended improvisation. Kaukonen points out that stripped-down trios — think Cream — can jam in much more dynamic ways than biggers bands, which often have to rely more so on arrangements.

“We never had big hits, so when we get together we never have to recreate ‘Hotel California’ or whatever,” Kaukonen says. “And I’m not critical of that as an artist. It’s just a different thing. The Eagles, when they got together, sounded like The Eagles. They did the songs the way people expect to hear them. People, when they hear us play, cut us so much slack, you know? We have wiggle room, and we can change things around. That’s a lot of fun.”

The acoustic path brings out a more straightforward approach to the arranged songs. The guys have a deep catalog to drawn on (plus covers and old blues standards), so the setlist keeps a dynamic flow from night to night, even in its rootsy frame.

Either way you slice the Tuna, though, Kaukonen and Co. deliver a message that we’d all do well to remember: Good music opens the soul to new opportunities, new feelings. It’s ingrained in him as a guitarist and a teacher. Kaukonen has been teaching music for nearly all of his career; his live performances are an extension of what he’s learned in his life — in the studio and onstage and among friends.

“In any weekend with any festival, a community is created,” Kaukonen says. “That’s one of the things that I think we had — to overuse a much-overused phrase — back in the day. It’s that sense of community.”

Dark Star Jubilee
Dark Star Orchestra, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Hot Tuna, more
May 27-29, Legend Valley, Thornville, Ohio. Tickets: $139, darkstarjubilee.com.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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