in performance: leo kottke

Leo Kottke.

“Remember, Leo. Your future is in the trombone.”

That was the advice Leo Kottke recalled last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort given to him by his Mahler-obsessed band director as a seventh grader in Oklahoma. But in true Kottke fashion, such advice, off the mark as it proved to be, was merely a warm-up for a parable of how the refuge of his earliest musical education formed the basis of disco.

Think that was rich? Try the tale of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Gene Pitney, who supposedly had a one-handed bassist who played with a wooden prosthetic that unexpectedly detached and rolled across the stage during a performance.

Such was the territory Kottke visited last night through yarns full of curious but conversational charm. But such obviously unrehearsed dialogue has long been the bonus prize of a Kottke concert, an inviting if not slightly obtuse way of welcoming audiences to his typically stunning musicianship on 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars.

At 72, Kottke remained as stylistically indefinable as an instrumentalist and he was unassuming and, frankly, outrageous as a raconteur. His playing remained a mash-up of folk and folk-blues references bolstered by vintage pop interference and a decided preference for composition over improvisation.

How else do you explain a deconstruction of the 1961 Bert Kaempfert orchestral hit “Wonderland by Night” into a gentle, respectful lullaby for 6 string guitar or how the folk themes within Kottke’s own 1969 work “Ojo” were repeated with steadily darker variations that brought out the orchestral depth and beauty of the 12 string?

Kottke has never had hits, per se, but he dispensed with two cover tunes that helped define his music during the early 1970s – Paul Siebel’s “Louise” and Tom T. Hall’s “Pamela Brown” – in side-by-side fashion early in the 90 minute program. Both revealed sagely, if not occasionally mumbling, creases in Kottke’s baritone vocals.

But if the program focused primarily on the rear view mirror of Kottke’s 50 year career, it ended with a brave look over the dashboard with a new work titled “Wet Floor.” Tagged by the guitarist as an encore tune (“so we can all leave the theatre at the same time”), the piece played out like a suite that shifted from passages of subtle lyricism to beefier, rhythmic interludes that again illuminated the 12 string’s robust sound.

Kottke may be most at home onstage poking away at unlikely corners of his past through story and song. But a tune like “Wet Floor” reminded us the guitarist still has invention and cunning to spare for the road ahead.

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