The audience at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre was having another giggle fit when Leo Kottke let us in on a little secret: “I’m having a better time than you are.”
I suppose that’s possible, though I’m not sure how. Aside from being one of the best purveyors of “wooden music” on the planet, Kottke is also one of the funniest acts you’ll ever see, with or without an instrument. The legendary acoustic guitarist’s off-kilter, between-and-sometimes-mid-song monologues can bring you close to tears, and he had many of us laughing that laugh that just keeps on going until Kottke plays a line or a figure that’s so heart-stoppingly beautiful. Then we had stop laughing because we were too busy sucking in as much sound as our ears could manage.
Kottke describes his serial gregariousness as wanting to be like “the lounge singer who’s playing ‘Feelings’ for the thousandth time and still can’t get it right, but he can have a conversation over his shoulder with someone while he does it.” Mostly, Kottke’s jokes and stories are designed to fill time until he figures out what he’s going to play next. “I don’t have a set list,” he explained. “There’s nothing worse than one guy on stage knowing exactly what he’s going to do!”
What he did was what he’s been doing since he recorded “6- and 12-String Guitar” for John Fahey’s Takoma record label in 1969: Employ a mesmerizing finger-picking style that’s part Appalachian folk and southern blues, but also draws on classical guitar forms, to take string instruments well beyond their limits. His leather-bound voice isn’t nearly as impressive (At best, it recalls Johnny Cash in his much-later years), but when it’s applied to classics like “Corinna, Corinna,” “Louise” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” or on his own tunes like “Then,” then that leather fits like a glove. (Feel free to cringe, but that’s the truth!)
Leo Kottke has played and recorded with other musicians, but the acoustic goodness he can conjure amply demonstrates why other players are superfluous. He makes a 12-string guitar sound like an army of mandolins, with depth and resonance that passes understanding. While Kottke certainly plays great licks, his music is more about patterns and sounds, stringing them together like an aural tapestry as he explores where the tune might go. He did this on a 6-string to “Little Martha,” taking the piece beyond where Duane Allman’s original recording went.
That said, Kottke frequently lauds other players he considers to be the best: He made several warm references to the abilities of late pianist Bill Evans; he prefaced a Pete Seeger instrumental by pointing out Seeger’s dexterity with his thumb (“The idea is to play like you have five fingers, not four fingers and a thumb…”); and in one of the few serious things he said during the set, he remembered seeing “Corinna” done by blues icon Mississippi John Hurt. “He never recorded it,” Kottke marveled, “but it must have been a heartbreaker in his hands.”
The only shock came at the end of the night, when Kottke tore a fingernail on his closing number. He looked at his hand for a second and said, “How do I do this?” Somehow he figured it out, smiling while he did it, and earned himself a standing ovation. Then again, he was just living something else he told us that made us laugh: “The definition of stress is acting the opposite of the way you feel.”
Review by J Hunter
NOTE: If you missed Kottke in concert last weekend, you’ll have another opportunity in the fall when he returns to play at the Wood Theater in Glens Falls on Friday and Saturday, October 14-15.
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “There is nothing on Kotke’s stage but a another acoustic guitar – not a stool, not a bottle of water, not a piece of paper with a setlist – just him and a mike with two acoustic guitars. So if he had a setlist in his head, he didn’t use it, because he would start a song, move to another, tell a story, and move to another song before the story ended. He delivered the expected skillful finger-picking. But also expected and delivered was his bizarre and entertaining stories that sometimes sunk down to babbling. He sang a few too, usually the sadder ones, like ‘Louise.’ He’s been vocal about not liking his voice – he has damaged ears, which may play into it. While his voice isn’t all-powerful or wide-ranging, his emotional range and presence are, and he carries a tune like sage, his fingers always working underneath.”