Leo Kottke: One-Man Band & Sit-Down Comedian

Contactby Chuck Obuchowski

In the late 1960s, while most of his  guitar playing peers were trying to imitate Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Leo Kottke was charting a very different musical course. A fan of acoustic country blues, folk, and various fingerpicking styles, Kottke assimilated these and other sonic strands into a unique solo instrumental style anticipated by his mentor, guitarist John Fahey. The young plectorist began attracting national attention with the 1969 release of “6 and 12 String Music,” issued on Fahey’s Takoma Records.

Twenty-some recordings later, Kottke is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of what has become known as American fingerstyle guitar. Yet his music is far too eclectic to fit neatly into any one style or genre. In concert, he’s as likely to tackle an old Buddy Holly favorite as he is to approximate the sound of two or three guitarists during one of his intricate original compositions. He might dust off an old Pete Seeger song or belt out Fleetwood Mac’s “World Turning” in his craggy baritone (Listen here). The latter, in fact, became something of a college radio hit when it was released in 1997.

While Kottke’s vocal excursions remain few and far between, live audiences are always treated to healthy doses of his humorous, free-associative stories and asides. As he tunes his instrument, he’ll be improvising a narrative that may or may not be relevant to the situation, and that in turn will spark an idea of where he turns next in terms of song selection. Watching the creative process in action is one of the joys of a Leo Kottke concert, and one can never be quite sure what to expect.

The outstanding acoustics at Infinity Music Hall make it an ideal space in which to experience Kottke’s music, since the guitarist focuses so intently on clarity and detail. Unlike his classical brethren, however, Kottke sees nothing wrong with following a gorgeous reading of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with a gritty “Corrina, Corrina.” Nor with paying homage to Johnny Cash and Duane Allman in the same set. Leo Kottke has very big ears.

Sadly, those ears suffered hearing loss on two occasions when he was a young man. During the 80s, Kottke developed tendinitis and had to rework his fingerings in order to remain active. More recently, he’s had to contend with the music industry upheaval and hasn’t released an album under his own name since 2004’s “Try and Stop Me” (RCA).

Despite all these challenges, Kottke at 68 retains his curiosity and creativity, always eager to build upon his kaleidoscopic musical vision. Collaborations with Phish bassist Mike Gordon during the past dozen years have exposed a new generation to Kottke’s artistry. Other collaborators include Ricki Lee Jones, Los Lobos and Chet Atkins, among many others. Recently, Kottke has expressed interest in recording with two past associates: the Turtle Island String Quartet and dobro master Jerry Douglas.

Ever the road warrior, Kottke heads to the west coast for the rest of the month following his Infinity Hall stop; then it’s back to New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia in April. Perhaps he’ll even make it back home to Minneapolis if he’s lucky. For an indication of how important touring is to Kottke – and of how delightfully quirky he is – visit www.leokottke.com. There you’ll find a tour schedule, a discography and a “notes” section, which currently displays only a single, hilarious account of his failed childhood attempts to learn to play the trombone. Must have been divine providence that he never mastered that instrument.

Tickets still available: http://www.infinityhall.com/events/leo-kottke/