Jorma Kaukonen is one of the legendary names from the 1960s rock explosion. He was a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, and later started Hot Tuna with Airplane bassist Jack Casady. And he remembers a few concerts during that time that blew his mind.
He saw Cream at Winterland in San Francisco when the British power trio was recording its historic Wheels of Fire double album in 1968.
“I never saw anything like it,” he says. “The whole show was mind-boggling.” Cream was “just powerful, and no one was more animated than Ginger,” Kaukonen says, referring to drummer Ginger Baker, whom many say was the best drummer in rock and roll history.
Kaukonen says he had seen Cream once before, during their first U.S. tour at The Fillmore in San Francisco, after the group released its debut album, Fresh Cream. During the late 1960s, a lot of people were raving about Jimi Hendrix, Kaukonen says, but "I personally just dug what Eric Clapton was doing with traditional blues more.
"In my opinion, no one transliterated the music of the masters into the power trio format better than Eric and his pals. Hendrix was monumental. I just dug Clapton more. What Eric was doing was important to me. He was probably the first person to make me want to use a wah-wah pedal.”
The other “best” concert Kaukonen witnessed as a spectator occurred in August 1969, hours before he and Jefferson Airplane took the stage at a New York dairy farm. It was in a tiny place called Bethel, and the world is still shaking from what happened there.
Santana took the stage before Jefferson Airplane at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair and delivered a smoking set to more than a half-million people. Many – if not most – had not heard of the band before.
“Once again, I had seen nothing quite like that before,” Kaukonen recalls. “We’ve taken cross-over music for granted over the years, but, back then, we had not heard electric salsa. Carlos Santana’s guitar playing was unbelievable. It was a killer show, and we watched it from the side of the stage. I had seen Carlos before in San Francisco – Mike Bloomfield turned me on to him. There is nothing quite like his guitar feel.”
Santana’s blazing performance was assisted by psychedelics. Carlos arrived at the festival site in the late morning and was informed his band would perform in the evening. "So I said, 'Hey, I think I'll take some psychedelics, and by the time I'm coming down, it'll be time to go onstage, and I'll feel fine.’” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1989. Santana said he was later told, though, to take the stage at 2 p.m. when he “was peaking” on mescaline. It didn’t stop him from delivering an incredible eight-song set of Latin-rock fusion, featuring “Evil Ways,” “Persuasion” and “Soul Sacrifice,” that made the relatively unknown Bay Area band internationally famous.
Jefferson Airplane were scheduled to headline the Woodstock festival that night, but the musical extravaganza didn’t run like clockwork, and the group only got on stage early the next morning. Keyboard player Nicky Hopkins joined them for their raw, yet exciting and adventurous 13-song set that no doubt left a lasting impression on many.
Another show that had a lasting impression on Kaukonen during his formative years growing up in the Washington, D.C., area was Bill Monroe in 1959 or 1960. Kaukonen he believes it was in Luray, Virginia. Like most shows of that era, the sound system was “minimal,” Kaukonen says. But Monroe, who invented the word “bluegrass” and became known as The Father of Bluegrass, made, Kaukonen remembers, “a lot of impact without artificial volume."
“I also got to see the Country Gentlemen, the Louvin Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, the Stoneman Family and more. It was a rich time for bluegrass in the area – not just at festivals but at local clubs like the Shamrock Tavern [in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood].”
Another trailblazer like Monroe who has made a huge impact on music – Bob Dylan – performed the best folk concert Kaukonen has ever seen. It was one of Dylan’s earliest shows, in the New Haven, Connecticut, area, possibly in Branford in 1961. Kaukonen says he was living in New York City, working on a co-op job provided by his Ohio college, Antioch, and drove to Connecticut with friends.
“All I remember from that evening is that I got what Dylan’s show was about,” Kaukonen recalls. “As an aspiring finger-style guitar player, his guitar work was no interest to me. However, the show made quite an impression on me. I am sure my New York pals and I drove back to New York and picked until the sun came up.”