Leo Kottke: Man and his Guitar

It seems a tricky business to describe a man whose career has spanned over 3 decades with 25 albums of music (not including albums Leo has appeared on).

A Few Bits of Kottke Trivia:

•    Kottke is one of the most important and influential acoustic steel-string fingerstyle guitarists of the 20th century
•    In his many years in the business, Kottke played & recorded with a wide range of musicians: Chet Atkins, Mike Gordon, Leon Redbone, Doc Watson and Violent Femmes, to name a few.
•    He was voted the Best Folk Guitarist in Guitar Player Magazine four years in a row (1974-1978).

Just for fun:
•    A Favorite album: Bill Evans, You Must Believe in Spring, 1980
•    A Favorite author: Saul Bellow, recently read, The Adventures of Augie March

His music defies norms and his outstanding ability and commitment to his craft are breathtaking. Kottke’s music doesn’t fit comfortably in any genre. It has been labeled as “folk” but at times he gets quite jazzy, and has also been identified with “new age.”

One thing that’s apparent from his interviews is a quirky sense of humor and refreshing modesty about his talent. For a man who has so widely and profoundly pushed the boundaries of his instrument he maintains an “Oh, thanks,” attitude towards compliments and mostly believes it’s a compliment that he’s able to do what he loves, and people love listening.

In an interview with PureMusic in 2002, Kottke said, “I couldn’t ask for more. It’s a privilege to play, and on top of that, they pay you for it. So it’s pretty hard to beat.”

He goes on, “Especially after this much time, it’s clearly what I’m supposed to be doing. I think it’d be dangerous for me to say one day, “Well, I think I’m going to have a vacation for a year.” That’s really looking for trouble–even saying it sounds scary to me. Playing music, it’s good for you. And over time it makes you kind of grow up a little bit.
Recently I listened to the song, “Tiny Island,” off Kottke’s 1972 album, Greenhouse:

I wish I had a tiny island floating in the sea
Palm trees don’t get in the way, it’s a tropical ease
And everywhere that I keep my silence, no sound returns to me
Just endless waves at the end of our days, the sighing of the seas

But yesterday’s gone, I don’t know where I come from, hmmm
Wonder where I’m going

An instant favorite for me; I immediately felt that sense of inner ease a great song can bring.

The blues tune, “From Pizza Towers to Defeat,” off the 2002 album Clone (a collaboration with Mike Gordon, Phish’s bassist) has a great flow and a catchy vibe. Or the song “Power Failure,” off the 1975 album Chewing Pine:

Climbing out of open windows,
Crashing down from broken stairs,
Keeping watch on smoking cinders,
Falling over burning chairs.
Tossed and crossed, and screwed in transit.
Broken, splintered, bruised and thrown.
Badly shattered, gale forced frighty,
Rushed across and shown alone.
Speech reduced by poor relations
Strung from weeks of self-abused,
Chopped up, churned out, weeks of greazy
Spark plugs burnt up power’s fused

There’s so much movement in this song it’s incredible – the active lyrics combined with Kottke’s guitar solos pump it full of adrenaline.

In another interview I came across from The Woodstock Independent in 2010, Kottke said, “One of the things with this job, when you’re new at it, is you need to see brand-new towns and venues all the time, otherwise you’ll starve to death. But at a certain point, maybe ten years in, you realize that it’s not about playing in a new place every time. It’s about being asked back.”

The Door Community Auditorium asked Kottke back, and he returns to Door County for a concert this Sunday, September 18th.


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