in performance: leo kottke

the man, quite literally, behind the guitar: leo kottke.

the man, quite literally, behind the guitar: leo kottke.

How many artists do you know that apologize to an audience for its applause?

Well, put Leo Kottke at the top of the list as of last night. After taking the stage at the Kentucky Theatre for a typically stunning performance of 6-and-12 string guitar music, the lights stayed low for a beat or two, causing the crowd to extend their vocal greeting. Hey, nobody had a gun to their heads. The patrons in the house seemed happy to whoop it up for their acoustic guitar hero.

“Sorry,” Kottke replied in the same sleepy baritone voice that colored roughly one-third of his performance repertoire. “I didn’t mean to make you clap so long.”

Right there you had a key to Kottke’s performance persona. Oh sure, his guitars sang as wildly as ever with compositions that moved along with the grace and pace of a country blues while displaying an almost symphonic denseness. But the remarks – the opening as well as all kinds of wonderfully off-centre stories peppered throughout the evening – again proved as indicative of Kottke’s crafty invention as his playing.

Last night there were stories of playing a gig near an aspirin factory, a brief comparison study of Chester Gould (the creator of Dick Tracy) and William Faulkner, Emmylou Harris’ explanation for how she was able to harmonize in the past with Kottke (“When you go flat, I go with you – just not as far”), a reflection on the first complete sentence uttered by his daughter (“Daddy, don’t sing”) and the virtues of performing at a funeral (“No one will ask you to play Pachelbel’s Canon there”). And, of course, there were the sublime non sequiturs (“That sounds like something Alphonse D’Amato might say, not me”).

These spoken interludes, as have always been the case with Kottke concerts, were not some purposeful and pre-planned stabs for aloof laughs . These fragments of color commentary – some self-effacing, some unavoidably fragmented – weren’t the tools of a character. His humor and stories were entirely his own spontaneous creations that humanized his music all the more.

And the playing? Well it was remarkable. A new, unrecorded composition titled Ants was something of a tour-de-force with extraordinary dynamics. There were shades of neo-classicism that guitar giants like Ralph Towner often bring their music along with bold displays of harmony.

Ditto for the Carla Bley meditation Jesus Maria, a tune the guitarist said he learned after watching vibraphone great Gary Burton play it in opening sets for Kottke concerts decades ago. Kottle has been performing it for years, although last night’s version managed to nicely rough up the harmonic edges a bit while keeping the tune’s contemplative beauty intact.

There were so many other delights, as well, including the wonderfully animated Snorkel, a bell-like reading of Duane Allman’s always exquisite Little Martha and the playful spree of the longtime concert favorite William Powell. And those were just the instrumentals. That same crumpled voice that welcomed the crowd brought to life the wistful Julie’s House as well as a cover of Lefty Frizzell’s Saginaw, Michigan – tunes that Harris recorded with Kottke in the early ‘80s, prompting the aforementioned remarks.

The killer though, was Everybody Lies – a tune of such placid but profound resignation that Kottke has recorded it twice on two of his finest albums (1978’s  Burnt Lips and 1989’s My Father’s Face). But last night’s version came with a sort of Halloween bonus. In another of his quietly riotous stories, Kottke confided that he modeled one of the tune’s characters on a sound tech he despised and ultimately fired from a tour.

“But in the song, I made him an attendant in an insane asylum.”

In pure Kottke fashion, though, the remark sounded affirmative and endearing. Come to think of it, the entire performance came across that way.

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