Seeing Leo Kottke in Concert never gets old, even if he has
Leo Kottke playing Little Martha at City Winery, 3/1/11 (photo: D. Lowden)
(From the Archives, March 2011)
New York, NY – When Leo Kottke stepped onto the stage to begin a two-night run at City Winery, he found indecision waiting. Trying out a few chords on his Taylor 6-string guitar, he made a feint toward the Bossa nova syncopation of William Powell, veered off to meander on the fingerboard and then stopped altogether.
After a moment’s pause he reached back to his roots and came up with a fist full a coal that he threw into the furnace and took off on the Last Steam Engine Train. With a driving bass and a bridge like a locomotive climbing through an Ozark mountain pass, this old-timey instrumental really picks up steam across the bendy, bluesy refrain that makes it impossible for a listener to keep their toes from tapping.
The piece can be heard on what he calls his ‘first real record’, entitled “6 and 12 String Guitar” (1969), which was produced by John Fahey, the man credited with composing this adaptation of an older folk tune. Mr. Kottke often performed it as a duet with Doc Watson or Chet Atkins and at times as a trio with both of them. But I had never seen him play it alone. It was one of many firsts that I encountered in an evening of music culled from the four decades spanning his virtuoso career.
Kottke emerged in the late 60s as a trailblazer in the genre now known as American fingerstyle guitar. He spent the next twenty years performing at festivals and concert halls around the globe before a car wreck and acute tendonitis nearly ended his career.
The 1990s found him rejuvenated, as he experimented with innovative record producers and a variety of instruments, like the nylon 12-string guitar, six-string bass and guitar synthesizers. The opening decade of the twenty-first century was split between musical collaborations and recording an album of solo instrumentals for the acoustic guitar that ranks among the finest he ever made.
Instrumentals and Songs
The second offering in the set also came from his debut album. An instrumental ballad of sorts, Ojo is usually performed on a 12-string guitar. Tonight he chose the 6-string to play the arrangement found on “Regards from Chuck Pink” (1988), where he transposes the melody into a minor key halfway through. This adds a contemplative tinge to the piece despite its swift tempo.
His cheerful baritone voice leapt from the excellent sound system during the first song of the night. It was Julie’s House, an original composition from “Time Step” (1983) and he followed it with a rendition of Frizz Fuller’s From Pizza Towers to Defeat, about a man who was killed while “robbing the last train to Chico”.
I cannot remember seeing Leo Kottke sing two songs in a row. Unlike many entertainers from that generation, his voice has actually improved with maturity until, at times, it resembles the resonant bass notes of a cello playing in counterpoint with his guitar.
He exchanged that guitar for the 12-string version and fiddled about in search of inspiration before easing into Snorkel, the opening track from “One Guitar, No Vocals” (1999).
He has always had a knack for composing what seems to be the 12-string soundtrack of large, lumbering beasts. In Snorkel there lives a whimsical behemoth of impressive bulk, tooling along with graceful buoyancy in the high harmonics and propelled by a deliberate, plodding bass that is balanced by chiming trebles. It brought to mind a massive airship. But given the title, perhaps it was a complacent manatee making its way through the kelp forests, or even that pale and pasty Minnesotan shadowing its movements in flippers and a diving mask.
As the resultant applause was ending he started the opening glides of Jack Fig, another of his earliest recordings. The tempo on this rendition was about half the speed of some I have heard. In fact, after the initial jaunt through the first two numbers, the concert settled into a laid back groove for much of the evening.
This pleasant languor carried over into Gewerbegebiet, the tour de force from “Try and Stop Me” (2004), Kottke’s most outstanding collection of solo guitar music in a quarter of a century. His liner notes concerning the original recording mention a childhood spent eavesdropping as grandparents conversed in German and then being left to ponder the mysteries heard in that undeciphered tongue.
The word gewerbegebiet translates as ‘business zone’, possibly what Americans call an industrial park. But the music is all about the mysteries. A bass-heavy opening, both regal and melancholy, builds with brooding suspense, like unseen footsteps followed up winding stairs and darkened corridors. With each bend and release from the lowest strings, the sense of anticipation mounts. Erratic phrases glide up in unison and recede, like fluttering torchlight invading one shadowy alcove after another; until the next surge of sonorous, bending pull-offs ripen into palpable apprehension.
Paul Siebel’s ballad Louise has become one of Leo Kottke’s most requested numbers since it showed up on “Green House.” (1973) Tonight, Leo donned his brass slide and led the audience through this well-known tale of the fallen woman who “rode home on the mail train.” Afterwords he had to wait some time before their audible appreciation subsided.
The guitar arrangement of Pete Seeger’s Living in the Country is likewise a signature tune for Kottke and the relaxed pace applied to most of the night’s music transformed it from a steeplechase to a jocular Sunday’s drive with plenty of room for some improvised detours.
The return to six strings bought him to the night’s final five selections. These included his sublime arrangement of Corina, Corina, the folk classic heard on “Standing in My Shoes” (1997). His particular rendering includes an instrumental refrain right out of some 50’s rock n roll dance orchestra, only with the maestro playing all the parts on one acoustic guitar.
He said goodnight at the finish of Duane Allman’s Little Martha, or at least the main melody, as it is heard on “A Shout Toward Noon.” (1986) The original bridge has been replaced by Kottke’s own and at times he plays the entire refrain on the harmonics at the 12th and 7th frets. In this case, it was the 14th and 9th frets, as he had a capo at the second fret, transposing it to the original Open E tuning. I had never seen him do that before tonight. And for the gear-obsessed, it turned out to be the Planet Waves NS capo.
For an encore he chose another signature tune from his “Time Step” LP. The song Rings was written by Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey, but it is Kottke’s simmering intro and infectious syncopation, with perpetual eighth notes rising from the bottom of the guitar like champagne bubbles, that make it such an invigorating three minutes of music.
Another first was seeing him playing Rings on a 12-string guitar. He had such a good time doing so that he extended the ending for a long while, getting off on the groove and raising the roof on the place.
Earlier in the set he played a couple of instrumentals on the 6-string guitar that were unknown to me. The first was slow and as atmospheric as a Film Noir score. The other began similarly, but evolved into a lively excursion, filled with quirky twists that traversed the full length of the neck. Having never previously heard either, I inquired about them after the show. Leo said he doesn’t follow a set list. But when I mentioned details of the technique employed, he had no trouble recalling the titles; Four Cents and Flattop.
“Four and Flat are new tunes.”, he added. “Four is a take on something Toots Thielemans said to Dave Evans.” But he chose not to reveal what the old harmonica player might have uttered that was thus inspiring. Instead, he noticed I had correctly spelled Gewerbegebiet in my notes and thanked me for it.
Among other revelations this night, he disclosed the origins of the title Ojo. The structure and composition of the music always brought to my mind flowing water, so I had spent decades wondering why he would name the tune after the Spanish word for “eye.” As it turns out, he didn’t.
After all these years he remained disappointed by the discovery that it already existed in a foreign language. “It’s a word I thought I invented.”, he confessed with some good-natured indignation.
Tools of the Trade
I neglected to include a question about something he said years ago, when he claimed that he took every new guitar and went to work with a penknife, whittling on the braces to increase the responsiveness of the soundboard. I remain curious about that.
Maybe he no longer needs to. It was obvious he remains quite happy that Taylor has honored him with an artist signature model. In fact, Bob Taylor brought Leo Kottke back to 12-string guitars in the late 1980s.
Now available in 6 and 12-string versions, it was the LKSM-12 model that Taylor first introduced in 1990 and it is the last 12-string guitar remaining in the Taylor catalog to feature their original Jumbo body size. Both versions are mahogany guitars with a 17” lower bout and built with rosewood bindings, a blank, ebony fingerboard, wood fiber purfling and a soft, Venetian cutaway on the treble side.
The example currently on the road with its namesake has a bookmatched top of exquisite, quartersawn Sitka spruce. The cross ripple gives it the appearance of a striped piece of woven tapestry. When struck by the stage lights the silking in the grain shimmered like the Aurora.
“We went through seven prototypes until we got it just right.” he said, recalling the development process. Early attempts included “pointy” Florentine cutaways and other variations.
“And when they went into production they did just exactly what they wanted to do and forgot about the prototypes.” he said, cracking himself up. “What was encouraging about that was, it really did sound better to me. So I quit my career in luthiery and returned to just playing them.” That is something Leo Kottke has done very well for a very long time.
At 65, the esteemed ambassador of the American mode of fingerstyle guitar no longer resembles the great big boy he once did. Age has brought maturity to his looks and to his outlook.
“Mose Allison has a word for the time space-time continuum: “Spime”. If it is a continuum; I have no idea. It seems sort of permanent to me.”, he mused as he was about to spin a tale relating to an event from his youth. But in that Leo Kottke way, he jumped tracks and focused on someone else’s youth.
“I was talking to Justin Bieber the other day. He’s really depressed. He has a birthday coming up.” he said, shaking his head at the thought of someone being worried about growing old who was so young and already so famous and successful. And that led to another quantum leap and a funny story about Homer and Jethro, when they were compelled by a promoter to play an entire show to an empty ballroom. I will let Leo tell you the punch line sometime.
It has been many years since Leo Kottke has had to worry about playing to empty houses. Yet it remains easy to forget that he is so famous and renowned the world over as a true virtuoso, when he can come off as an amiable fellow guitar player who just happens to earn a living at it, while owning an irrepressible if skewed sense of humor.
He’s not played here much since the Bottom Line closed. Manhattan is fortunate in gaining an intimate venue like City Winery that is so conducive to enjoying concert soloists in an inviting and comfortable atmosphere. It is great to see Leo Kottke back on a small stage in New York City and see the seats filled to the back wall. As I told his manager’s assistant, if Leo keeps showing up we will too.
Full Set List from March 1st, 2011
Last Steam Engine Train
From Pizza Towers to Defeat
Living in the Country
Four Cents (6-string)
Rings (encore, 12-string)
March 2nd Set List (incomplete)
Living in the Country
William Powell (6-string)
From Pizza Towers to Defeat
Last Steam Engine Train
In the Bleak Midwinter (12-string)
Disco (yes, he played the same tune twice in one show.)
Not sure what is missing other than Little Martha, which I am told was not the encore.