Leo Kottke performs "Pamela Brown"
Venues should really install seatbelts for Leo Kottke concerts.
Not to suggest that they’re uncomfortable or dangerous, but Kottke can veer off so sharply on a whimsical tangent, both in his guitar playing and storytelling, that feeling unbalanced by his artistry or falling off a chair laughing is a distinct possibility.
At City Winery Monday night, the laughs started with his opening words.
“I feel like saying, ‘Excuse me’—as if I barged in on something!” Kottke said, then quoted late English jazz saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott: “I should have stayed in bed. There were more people there.”
No matter the room was virtually full.
Commencing the set on a relatively even keel, Kottke turned to an old instrumental favorite from one of his fave instrumentalists, Pete Seeger’s “Living in the Country”—though he did chuckle to himself unexpectedly in the middle of it.
“I’m just having a dialog here,” Kottke explained, maybe to himself as much to the audience. But that pretty much sums up what he does: His music performances always seem to have at least two sides going on simultaneously, and then he’ll say something and add at least a third one.
But his songs are also always bright and upbeat albeit intricate and complex, if not altogether baffling. His own somewhat ambiguous composition “Julie’s House” provides a good case in point.
“It’s a song that’s either true or false,” Kottke said, by way of introduction. “Einstein and Niebuhr listened to it all the time.”
Watching him finger chords on his six-string’s neck was like watching a like genius think, graphically working out arrangements in his head as much as on the fretboard. Oddly, though, this guitar genius revealed that he’d originally played tuba in school, as it was “a punishment instrument” that they moved you to after “acting up on clarinet.” Following a typically lengthy and meandering instrumental warm-up—always the best part of his live songs, he noted—he dedicated his much-requested vocal version of Tom T. Hall’s “Pamela Brown” to “tuba players everywhere.”
It was soon time for a drink, and holding his water bottle with both hands, he disclosed that he had to do so in order not to miss his face entirely and spill the contents all over his guitar neck. As for said guitar neck—and body--he constantly looked down at both while playing, sometimes grimacing or registering some other expression, though more often than not surprise, if not confusion or disbelief.
The night’s big reveal was that he’d rather be put in a basement and hung from a hot air duct than be a solo performer most of his career and then be hired to play with a 62-piece orchestra—as he had been, in Kansas City--because being up front by the conductor means that the musicians in the back are behind him, both in position, obviously, and in timing—which, apparently, is one reason why there’s a conductor to begin with.
“You think, ‘What a privilege! What a thrill! What a nightmare,” Kottke continued. “I realized I’m a beat ahead. The conductor said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll catch up to you.’ But that means you have to stay at the same tempo as you were at the beginning!”
Other Kottke tales involved his vast literary pursuits, Moby Dick in particular. He recalled celebrating his having completed the Melville classic by hugging a cottonwood tree, which was “a big mistake.”
“There’s something about the absolute nothingness of hugging a tree,” he said, segueing into a song that he said was “something that sounds like a cottonwood,” namely, “The Fisherman.” “There’s no reason for calling it that except for some reason I thought it sounded like fishing,” said Kottke, who also did another original tune, as yet unrecorded, named “Wet Floor.”
“I don’t know why I called it that, and don’t really like it and could change it, but titles stick,” he said. Then again, “What’s sound got to do with music?” he asked, quoting Charles Ives, this after attributing his severe hearing loss to his stint on a submarine in the Navy.
“You won’t get this s**t from Justin Bieber!” he said. Nor would Justin Bieber fans get Kottke’s next selection, “Busted Bicycle”--a song he wrote after seeing folk blues great and fellow Minneapolis resident John Koerner’s bicycle after it was hit by a taxi.
“The empty head is everything,” Kottke declared, perhaps the perfect lead-in to his classic version of Duane Allman’s “Little Martha,” the melody for which, he recounted, came in a dream, while the title came from a tombstone. He finished the set with another Kottke concert staple, “Louise,” played on 12-string and not only with a slide, but with a capo, Kottke reporting that after some 60 years of playing guitar he’d only learned how to use one last year.
He stayed put for his encore, Cymarron’s 1971 hit “Rings,” in which he always substitutes “James Taylor on the stereo” with “Mel Blanc on the radio.” And while no one had fallen out of their chairs at City Winery, at least one listener was a bit wobbly getting up.