Jorma Kaukonen is on the phone, calling not from some publicist's posh office -- as you might expect of a guitarist known to rockers for his work with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna -- but from a service station in Jersey City. His van, Kaukonen explains, dropped its drive shaft and he's spent the last few hours repairing it, just a couple of days before his new five-piece band called There Goes The Neighborhood embarks on its initial tour.
That the road brings him to Washington first, for an appearance at Club Saba tonight, is only fitting since Kaukonen's musical odyssey began here. He grew up in Chevy Chase, not far from Jack Casady , who played bass alongside him in both the Airplane and Hot Tuna.
"When I was in high school in the mid- to late-'50s we had a garage band," Kaukonen, 44, recalls. "Jack and I played at places like the Rendezvous and all these little dives on M Street -- long gone now. We used to occasionally work for Milt Grant, who had the Washington equivalent of 'American Bandstand' on the air. We even somehow managed to open shows for Jimmy Clanton and Bo Diddley."
And what were they playing? Kaukonen lets out a big laugh. "Pretty much what I'm still playing today with my new band -- tunes by Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley. In those days, maybe a couple of things by Ricky Nelson."
Kaukonen says he always loved blues, though he didn't become much of a guitarist until he went off to Antioch College in Ohio. There he met a New Yorker named Ian Buchanan, a skillful guitarist and a student of one of the finest fingerstyle guitarists alive then, the Rev. Gary Davis.
"Buchanan really got me interested in that kind of style," Kaukonen says. "And when I got to New York there were a lot of pickers there and I really felt fortunate to be around them."
Although his name became virtually synonymous with San Francisco electric rock, when Kaukonen arrived on the West Coast in 1962 he recalls being merely one folkie among what seemed to be millions. "I don't think there was anything quite like that folk scene out there until electric rock started to take over in '64," he says. "There were all these acoustic players, all kinds -- blues, folk, whatever. And there were just countless places to play."
Shortly after his arrival Kaukonen met Paul Kantner, then a student in Santa Clara. When Kantner moved to San Francisco, Kaukonen says, "He got into this commercial folk thing with Marty Balin and some other people. They needed a guitar player, and I thought, hey, I just graduated from college. What do I have to lose?"
So Kaukonen hopped aboard the Jefferson Airplane, but not without taking some precautions first. "I decided to ask Casady to join because I believe there's strength in numbers," he says. "I knew if I could get another homeboy from D.C. to join it would be easier to get along, and I was right."
Kaukonen is still amazed at how quickly the Airplane took off. "We almost went right into the studio. We paid some dues later, but not in the beginning. We were recording before we knew it." Kaukonen looks back fondly on his days with the group. He says he decided to call it quits not because of any ego clashes within the band but because things simply got boring.
"After a while it wasn't really my kind of music," he says, "and the more I played the electric guitar the more I wanted to experiment with other things. Hot Tuna came about simply because me and Jack were bored and we started to play together a lot and eventually it turned into a full-time thing."
The raucous, blues-based, heavy metal-auguring Hot Tuna saw Kaukonen through much of the '70s, though he confesses he now listens to the band's recordings infrequently. Since the group disbanded, he's recorded several solo albums, worked with a short-lived band called Vital Parts and participated in an ill-fated Hot Tuna reunion tour.
"That just never worked out," Kaukonen admits. "Jack and I hadn't seen each other in seven years and we had grown apart, musically and personally. Part of the problem was I told the guys in the band we were going to do a lot of new material -- we weren't just going to clone ourselves. But I guess I was naive. Reunions were real big back then, about two years ago, and people wanted to hear us play the old stuff. You can't live in the past -- it makes you look stupid."
So what about the Jefferson Starship or the Grateful Dead? Does Kaukonen listen to them anymore? "Nope," he says, followed by a long silence. "I don't really have anything negative to say about those groups. They're just not playing my kind of music."
Kaukonen promises, however, that his new band is playing his kind of music. The group, true to form, just seemed to fall into place after Kaukonen met bassist Jaco Pastorius, who then introduced him to several other musicians. They all played together briefly in New York, and when Pastorius failed to make an engagement in Boston, another bassist was added and There Goes The Neighborhood was born.
Apart from Kaukonen, the best known musician in the group is drummer Rashied Ali, who worked with jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
"Everybody contributes in this band," says Kaukonen. "Everybody writes, everybody sings. I guess you could call it a sophisticated blues band, mixing original tunes with stuff from Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter and even Motown. I'm really lucky to be working with them."
And as for the financial consequences of pursuing his own music rather than milking a proven success, Kaukonen waxes philosophic.
"I have to deal with that every day," he says. "At least I still really enjoy what I'm doing, and I'm still able to do it. You can't ask for much more than that."