Master at work

Jorma Kaukonen takes the stage at the Old Whaling Church.


So, raise your hand if you’re a Jorma Kaukonen fan (I’m raising mine). I’ll be straight with you — I knew Jorma’s music with Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and some of his extensive solo stuff, but I wasn’t what you would call a devotee. And I don’t know if you can even classify Jorma’s “fan base” as devotees. They’re almost communicants.

At his show at the Old Whaling Church this past Saturday night, I witnessed the Jorma faithful congregate for his two-set solo performance. As I stood at the entrance, one woman walked by me, and she enthusiastically mouthed “JORMA!” Her genuine excitement, juxtaposed with a kind of reverence, truly made my heart smile. (You can see him yourself this Friday night at the Loft.)

Now, having witnessed my first-ever Jorma performance, I get it. It also rang louder since I had the pleasure of speaking with him just a few days prior.

When asked if he’s got any new music he’s been working on, Jorma replied, “I’ve never been a prolific writer, but they dribble out. I’ve been in the business for a long time. So over the years, I’ve written a lot of songs. But I’m not a tunesmith like, say, Gretchen Peters or somebody like that. But I’ve got a gaggle of songs. And I’ve actually got a couple new ones that will be making an appearance. I’m fond of saying I play everything from the erection to the resurrection.”

Immediately I was struck by his beautiful speaking voice, and the ease with which he cannot only respond easily to any question (which probably shouldn’t be a surprise, considering he’s been in the public eye for well over 50 years), but his general sense of self. Having never witnessed a performance before Saturday, I figured he just had to be a great storyteller.

“I guess it depends on the circumstance. I mean, you know, when I think about public speaking, it’s like being at a podium and having a mission to accomplish in a given amount of time, you know? But it makes me uncomfortable, you know? For a guy that’s been paid to be silly in front of people most of his life, playing music and singing and the little bit of chatting that you do onstage. It’s one thing if you have a talkative audience … But to actually be a public speaker, I just can’t wait to get it over with.”

Jorma’s answer encouraged me to ask him if he felt more comfortable speaking in front of an audience when he has his guitar around his neck, to which he replied, “Actually, that’s funny. Yes, in a lot of ways I do that. And with that in mind, years ago when I first started recording with the Airplane, when the time came to do vocal overdubs — because that’s how you do stuff in the studio — it made me very uncomfortable. And so whether I was playing or not, I would wear a guitar while I did vocal overdubs.”

Which brings me to his show last Saturday night. To an almost sold-out performance, Jorma strolled onto the stage a little after 8 pm. Remaining true to his less-is-more philosophy when it comes to chatting up the audience, he gave a quick, yet warm greeting, and launched into a string of tunes from his much-storied history that quite literally enraptured those in attendance. Going back to what I mentioned earlier — the whole communicants thing — this was not just a performance. This was a musical sermon, though Jorma might wince at such a description.

Regardless of his stature as someone who advanced the needle of acoustic blues, folk, Americana, and psychedelic music more than just about anyone over the past half a century, when Jorma plays, it’s from the marrow. It’s not performance, really. It’s like watching a master class on how to have your guitar speak its truth. You could almost feel the presence of the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightning Hopkins, and so many others of Jorma’s influences right there in the Whaling Church with you — off to the side, in the veil, and nodding proudly at their most accomplished student.

Speaking of students, Jorma pays his gift forward through his Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. Founded in 1989, Jorma said he wanted to demystify the process of playing music with the camp. He, along with his wife Vanessa, have had to ride the wave of change over the past several years, thanks to COVID. And while the camp was exclusively in-person at their ranch in Ohio (complete with heralded guest guitar instructors like Chris Smither, Warren Haynes, Patty Larkin, and so many others), the format has since morphed to virtual and on-the-road formats.

Regardless of your ability, all are welcome to attend. But back to the show.

As I sat there (in what Jorma himself said from the stage was a venue he wished all others were like), I kept going back and forth between watching him just make that guitar of his preach to the audience, and everyone else receiving the message. For two sets, which between them lasted about two and a half hours, not one person waned in their attentiveness. From his classic “Hesitation Blues” to the old Jimmie Cox tune “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” to “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” one that his musical mentor, the Rev. Davis, recorded, we all were in appreciation mode.

Kaukonen’s voice was strong and emphatic, his playing (needless to say) was simultaneously powerful and intricate (and intimate). At 82, by his own admission, he feels he’s never been in better form. A lot of guys (and it’s always guys) might say that, but they wouldn’t be able to back it up.

Not the case here. And the major reason for that is that he’s keeping himself interested in what he’s doing, which, in turn, keeps us interested as well.

“I guess on some levels, I actually do consider myself a storyteller. I’m fortunate because my story comprises songs that I’ve been playing for over half a century, and some new ones. People allow me to tell the story over and over again. Now, because I teach these guitar classes, I play songs I recorded a long time ago, but I don’t play them the same way. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But things are always changing. And I’m always learning stuff as a musician. And so the way I tell my story is to get back to the show. Is it radically different? No, absolutely not. Will everybody notice? Unless you’re a musician, probably not. But I think that I’m a better musician, a better singer, and a better storyteller than I was when I was younger. The good news is that, for whatever reason, we got this train rolling a long time ago, and it’s hard to stop that train. People allow me to be as eccentric as I want to be in my performance. You know, the Eagles need to sound like the Eagles when they have a reunion, they got to play those songs. But people that listen to me allow me to tell my story whatever way I want to tell it at any given moment. And hopefully people will come away and go, ‘Wow, that was a fun.’”

You have another chance to catch Jorma at the Loft on Friday, June 16, at 9 pm. For tickets to that show, visit To find out more about Jorma’s touring schedule, as well as the Fur Peace Guitar Camp, visit