The term ‘guitar hero’ doesn’t usually conjure up an image of professorial dignity the likes of which Jorma Kaukonen radiated as he took the stage at Higher Ground April 2nd, But if this burly gray-haired musician proved anything to the rowdy but reverent standing room only audience, it’s that he’s redefining the concept: his was a virtuoso performance that never fell prey to mere technique,
Quite the contrary in fact and if the set list from his Ballroom show in the South Burlington venue looked chock full of familiar tunes it certainly was, all the way from “Hesitation Blues” to “Candyman.” But if it’s also true Kaukonen’s live performances are already well-documented, he might consider recording and releasing a performance like this one: reworking familiar material, Jorma found nuances of harmony in melody that freshened not just songs but his own playing. On tunes ranging from Rev. Gary Davis “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” and”Come Back Baby,” this founding member of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fluidly and regularly moved from rhythm work to deft finger-picking on his acoustic guitars making it all look easy and natural. Which, of course, after some five decades of playing it should be, but it was no less impressive for the enthusiasm Jorma brought to his show.
It was, in fact, quite appropriate that Kaukonen opened his two-set, ninety minutes- plus solo concert with the title track from his latest studio record “Ain’t In No Hurry.” He then went on to demonstrate how a setlist can barely scratch the surface of representing the musicianship on the stage to which the songs allude. His nasal voice more resonant than ever now in reflecting his exotic melodies, vintage originals such as “I See the Light” carry ever more meaning for both artist and performer and while some of Jorma’s more recent compositions, such as “River of Time” And “Things that Might Have Been” can sound maudlin, his reflections are as open humored and good-hearted as the repartee with the audience that sprinkled the first set early, but virtually disappeared after the break.
It almost seemed Jorma Kaukonen became immersed in a meditative state the longer he played, so much so that during the extended instrumental bridge of “Good Shepherd,” it was if he went into something of a trance, a state of intense tranquility recreated on what, oddly or not, was the sole instrumental he played all evening, “Water Song;” one of the wobbly wags near the back bar slurred aloud about bassist Jack Casady’s absence–Jorma deadpanned he was home practicing–but the fact of the matter is this man often sounded like more than one guitarist playing multiple complementary parts simultaneously as on “I Know You Rider.” Kaukonen’s long-term intimacy with both his instrument and the material furthers his ability to inject rhythmic twists with his playing and his singing, and thus render unpredictable a tune as well-worn as on “I Am the Light of This World.”
Having heard Higher Ground co-owner Kevin Statesir introduce his self-professed ‘long-time pal, the Vermont audience was a true diversity of demographics—the female segment of which danced along with a grace that mirror the playing—who no doubt heard virtually all their favorites this early spring night. Chances are though they never heard “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” “Bar Room Crystal Ball” or “Barbeque King” quite like this before and, given Jorma Kaukonen’s relish for rediscovery of his multiple repertoires, they probably never will again.