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Arts & Music

Hot Tuna's '60s sound gets better with age

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 08:29 PM

Not many music groups can claim the longevity that Hot Tuna has enjoyed. This American blues-rock band has been around for 40 years, touring the world and churning out dozens of albums. So what's the secret to their success?

"The music comes first," said founding member Jorma Kaukonen. "That makes it easy to keep going."

When Hot Tuna performs Saturday at the Straz Center, old and new fans alike will see and hear the magic that's kept this band alive. They'll perform an acoustic retrospective that goes back to 1967 and into today. Kaukonen called the concert a "roots Americana type of show," a mix of blues, rock, jazz, bluegrass and folk.

"We're three guys who play well and play well together. We're like a chamber group of Americana music. We play all kinds of stuff," Kaukonen said.

Hot Tuna's acoustic show consists of Kaukonen on guitar, Jack Casady on bass and Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin. While the band has seen members come and go over the years, Kaukonen and co-founder Casady have been the constants.

They met as teenagers in Washington, D.C., and quickly struck up a friendship grounded in their mutual love of music. In the mid-1960s, Kaukonen helped form a new band — The Jefferson Airplane, which Casady later joined. While still with Airplane, the two ventured out to perform the music they grew up with. Eventually, the guys landed a record deal, officially calling themselves Hot Tuna after a band member's random shout-out.

"We were in New York in the late '60s, goofing in a car with the band that would be called Hot Tuna. We were wondering what to do for a name. Someone in the car said, 'What about hot tuna?' In my defense, it was the '60s," said Kaukonen.

Some have said the name came as a response to a lyric in their song "Keep on Truckin'," but Kaukonen couldn't swear to it.

Other than their unusual title, what set the band apart was the tireless enthusiasm Kaukonen and Casady displayed on stage. They became known for playing three-to-six-hour sets, nonstop. Rock's loud, electric sound was their bread and butter for a while. It was a natural outgrowth of their time with Jefferson Airplane.

"I played for long time before Airplane. God bless Airplane, they allowed me to learn something I wouldn't have learned otherwise — to play rock and roll. Out of that I brought some techniques back to acoustic and electric that I wouldn't have learned otherwise if I were just a blues musician," Kaukonen said.

Hot Tuna has gradually settled into an acoustic format, which brings a degree of intimacy and depth that electric can sometimes overpower. The change hasn't slowed them down a bit. These guys are still making music, still producing albums, still touring and still loving every minute of it.

"There's always something going on and it's all good," Kaukonen said.

HOT TUNA

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Straz Center, 1010 MacInnes Place, Tampa

Tickets: $32.50; (813) 229-7827 and www.strazcenter.org

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