TO SAY THAT MUSIC AND WORDS define Leo Kottke is an understatement. He gives the impression of living in a stream of words and music, constantly flowing through him and shared in snippets with whatever audience he happens to face, as if he were a radio that can be switched on and off but continues its endless programming regardless.
But he’s been playing his guitar all along, highlighting the tale with strums and tunings and funny little musical quotes. And then a song bursts forth, often highlighted by a gravel-voiced vocal.
If the tune is an instrumental, you can be assured it will be highly rhythmic, demonstrating Kottke’s legendary ability to finger-pick a complicated accompanying figure even as he wreathes hairpin turns in a multi-layered melody. His opener at his recent Troy Music Hall concert was the bouncy “William Powell,” an original tune with a Samba feel (he once explained the title only by observing that he first intended to call it “Lana Turner”).
Even a more sentimental-sounding ballad like “Wonderland by Night,” which long ago slithered from Bert Kaempfert to Louis Prima, takes on new life in Kottke’s hands as it gets stripped of its sappiness and yet retains a gentle effectiveness.
Paul Siebel’s “Louise,” a Kottke standard, reveals another approach to the ballad, and it’s pretty raw, as befits the song. Accompanied by bottleneck slides on the 12-string guitar, Kottke’s piercing vocal mixed the lyric’s poetry with casual regret, and the music, almost matter-of-fact in its plangent beauty, echoed that sentiment.
Switching between 6- and 12-string during the 90-minute, intermission-free concert, Kottke started out with enough instrumentals to make us worry that he wasn’t going to sing much, but that proved not to be case.
A setting of Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” – first stanza only, as Kottke believes the rest not only to be hackwork but probably the hackwork of her brother, he explained – was appropriate to the season, while songs like his own “Standing in My Shoes” and “Hear the Wind Howl” displayed Kottke’s own skill as a lyricist.
The former is a ballad of misplaced love, again enhanced with bottleneck backing; the latter – well, kind of more of the same. “And we'll be back together/When it can't be the same,” sings one; “You can't go back, it's not the same/Things have changed” says the other, two sides of the same depressive coin.
And, to listen to the tales Kottke spins, it not surprising that he should feel that way. He’s one of the funniest storytellers I’ve ever heard, yet through his rambling, intellectually-incisive tales there’s a dark undercurrent of despair. Who else could wax eloquently about the recent book The Lobotomist – with a side-trip on the preferred layman’s instruments for such things – with such humor? And this while trimming a misbehaving callus with a borrowed emery board!
He then went on to fingerpick, as fleetly as ever, with the emery board squeezed between two fingers of his right hand, an impressive trick that looked (and probably was) entirely accidental.
Kottke has never been much of a hitmaker, although his nearly 30 recordings sell and have sold in respectable numbers. He’ll cover whatever strikes his fancy, and delighted the crowd with an old favorite, “Pamela Brown,” before closing with “Rings,” a number that may have been a bigger hit for Lobo but got a roar of enthusiastic response from the audience in the nearly-full hall – and audience that then leaped to its feet with an ovation as the song and the concert ended.
Effective amplification has been elusive in this hall in the past, but this time the juice was applied with more expertise – and restraint, letting the magical hall itself do more of the work.
Troy Music Hall, Feb. 17, 2005
– Metroland Magazine, 24 February 2005
AFTER HITTING US with two hard-driving numbers on the 12-string guitar, Leo Kottke switched to his 6-string, strummed a chord, looked around the Troy Music Hall and said, “What a beautiful joint.” He strummed again and exhorted us to listen to the long decay of the tones, then revealed that this is what music is all about – “Just going, ‘Oh, wow!’” Strum. “That’s the only reason you have melody and rhythm and all that stuff. To give you a way to get to this.” Strum. “Wow.”
His humor – and the guy tells hilarious stories – is very dry; his playing is superb. Astonishingly, he’s self taught. A protege of John Fahey, Kottke writes poignant, bluesy guitar pieces and shares Fahey’s penchant for assigning odd names to them. “I Yell at Traffic” is one of my favorites, both for its title and its tune.
But Kottke is also a uniquely affecting singer, with a resonant, no-frills voice that works beautifully on a songs ranging from the simple joy of “Rings,” one of his early hits, to the brooding “Room at the Top of the Stairs.”
The long set flowed between songs and instrumentals with Kottke alternating between the two guitars. Most of his stories told of the travails of traveling as a performer, with one, the wild saga of “The Lunatic Lithographer of Ljubljana,” throwing a curve-ball so deft that the audience gasped as he not only ended the tale with a poignant twist but also played an original instrumental that deftly captured the mood of the story.
Along with the many originals were numbers like Duane Allman’s “Little Martha” (“He said it came to him in a dream. Pissed me off.”), Paul Siebal’s “Louise,” and, to the audience’s delight, Tom T. Hall’s “Pamela Brown,” a song Kottke stopped performing for a while owing to flattened brain syndrome (he worked in a morgue – honest! – and would know) but still sings with gusto.
Kottke and the Music Hall make a good combination, even with the added amplification. But the hall’s acoustics are as sneaky as they are superb. The sound was louder than necessary, and the lowest notes of the 12-string guitar were terribly distorted. It would be a treat to see Kottke here again, especially if the amplification is tuned better.
The first part of the concert featured Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who plays in the classical Indian tradition. He uses a guitar of his own modification – he calls it “Mohan Veena” – that includes sympathetic strings for a sitar-like sound. Appropriately, most of his lengthy set was a raga, a structured form that nevertheless allows for a lot of improvisation. Variations are subtle, with nuances in rhythm and timbre as well as melody, but there was a fun, jazzy byplay between Bhatt and his partner, tabla player Sukhvinder Singh Namadhari.
“Embellishments can be very fast,” he explained in the opening, “when the artist wants to impress the audience. We are going to do that,” he added with a grin. They certainly did, with a rousing finale similar to the jazz style of trading fours. For an encore they played Bhatt’s “A Meeting by the River,” written for his Grammy Award-winning collaboration with Ry Cooder.
Leo Kottke, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt
Troy Music Hall, Nov. 2, 1996
– Metroland Magazine, 7 November 1996