When you’re one-half of the revered, iconic blues folk duo Hot Tuna, you can always count on having a lot on your plate.
Jack Casady — music historian, teacher and elder statesman of the electric bass — will turn 70 in April. He acknowledges the days do get shorter for he and his longtime partner in crime, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, yet Hot Tuna presses on with a busy schedule.
“The music now is more vital than ever,” Casady said. “To stay in the moment for the couple of hours we’re on stage each night is more vital than ever.”
A musical bridge between the Woodstock and Bonnaroo generations, the musicians of Hot Tuna are lauded for their acoustic and electric concert formats. Their upcoming performance at the State Theatre will be an acoustic set, accompanied by Barry Mitterhoff on tenor guitar, mandolin and banjo.
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“It’s a fairly organic process,” Casady said of Hot Tuna’s cultivation of the acoustic and electric shows.
“Our catalog is extensive, and quite a few songs move back and forth between acoustic and electric sets,” he said. “A few numbers lend themselves better to one style or the other. The acoustic formats are more intimate; people are really drawn into the performance.”
Hot Tuna will tour through the summer, with crowds still abuzz over the duo’s 2011 release, “Steady As She Goes.” While the group has several live releases to their credit, Casady maintains that “Steady As She Goes” is “the best example of a group playing live, using the clarity and purpose of a studio to enhance the recording.”
Though Casady and Kaukonen have jammed together since their teen years in Washington, D.C., Hot Tuna is most widely recognized as a splinter group of Jefferson Airplane, the popular 1960s outfit with the hits “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” Critics have wisely given Kaukonen’s razor-sharp riffs and Casady’s inventive bass lines equal mention alongside Grace Slick’s powerful vocals and topical lyrics.
Retaining some scant traces of Airplane psychedelia, Kaukonen and Casady shifted their primary focus for Hot Tuna to the sounds of the Mississippi Delta, the foothills of Appalachia and the untamed West — America’s musical roots. Covers of obscure tunes by The Reverend Gary Davis, Arthur “Blind” Blake, Jesse Fuller and others remain setlist staples. Time has nearly erased the names of these important performers, yet Kaukonen and Casady diligently carry on their legacies.
I asked Casady why it’s crucial for younger audiences actively listen to and maintain an appreciation for blues and folk music several generations removed.
“I guess I don’t look at the music in terms of a generational thing,” he said. “ ‘Half a century old,’ ‘100 years old,’ blues music or roots music, Americana, whatever you want to call it, has always been there. It’s always communicated the times and the human condition. Blues delves into the culture of the country. Its performers are story-tellers who describe the endeavors, consternations and mysteries of human life. That type of communication behooves everybody.”