It was a long time coming, but after decades of determined collective effort, Outpost in the Burbs finally brought iconic American blues/folk/rock guitarist Jorma Kaukonen to Montclair on Thursday evening, thanks to a grant from the Arnold and Joy Gottlieb Family Foundation. The sold-out event showcased Kaukonen’s finger-picking guitar prowess and silky smooth vocals, as well as the incredible versatility of his Hot Tuna band member, mandolin maestro and New Jersey native Barry Mitterhoff.
The concert was as much a tribute to the dedication of Kaukonen’s loyal fan base — many of whom had traveled hours to get to Montclair for the show — as it was to his outstanding music.
Speaking with a random selection of audience members, it became immediately clear that many in the crowd had Jorma stories to tell, and they were anxious to share. Hearing one person tell their story, others chimed in, in a congenial sort of Jorma show and tell. The profile of the somewhat homogenous crowd was typically a rock tee-shirt wearing Baby Boomer male who had been following the finger-picking legend for more than a few decades, going back to his early days with Jefferson Airplane. “It’s a shame that Grace Slick isn’t here tonight, too,” said one long-time fan.
The common thread to the tales of Jorma is that he’s a down-to-earth, totally approachable, hang-out kind of guy. Story after story conveyed the fact that he puts on no airs and postures no rock star persona, though clearly he could.
Montclair resident Ron Sosely got the chance to spend a friendly evening in a small NY bar near the West Side Highway back in 1986. “Jorma was playing with a small band, and he ended up sitting down with my friends and I,” Sosely reminisced. “He was very friendly and generous. We shared a very good night.”
Another audience member, NJ bass player Robert Mennella, has been a following Jorma since 1975 and has been to Jorma’s Fur Peace Ranch in rural Ohio. Founded by Jorma and his wife Vanessa in the mid-1980s, the “ranch that grows guitar players” is described as a place where both budding and seasoned musicians can collaborate and inspire each other’s music. “It’s not like Rock and Roll camp — you create relationships and really learn from these guys,” said Mennella. Back in 2004, Mennella was preparing to perform at the ranch, but needed a guitarist to accompany him. Mennella’s wife went off to round someone up and came back with Jorma. “I was surprised and nervous, but we played I See the Light together, and it was amazing. These guys are just it for me — they’re the real deal.” For those looking for a taste of Jorma’s Ohio music scene, Fur Ranch merchandise such as “Rhythm Tonic Tea” — a blend of Rooibus, Hibiscus, Rosemary, Cinnamon, Star Anise and Stevia — was available at the Outpost.
Just as he had been portrayed, Jorma was generous with his time and attention at last night’s Outpost show. He and Mitterhoff — who played a range of instruments including mandolin, banjo, ukulele and guitar — wowed the audience for hours with an intricate interplay of strings. Each in his own lumberjack-style plaid shirt, the duo seamlessly told their “musical stories” and exchanged friendly banter. Jorma even gave a shout out to a popular regional pork product. “I’m not leaving Jersey without having Taylor Ham for breakfast,” he said. “It’s better than Scrapple!”