The first time I had the pleasure of experiencing a live Leo Kottke performance, we were both in the early stages of our careers. Leo was touring in support of his album, Burnt Lips. I was honing my developing broadcast journalism skills for a then-fledging radio network known as “NPR.”
The year was 1978. The location was Washington, D.C. The venue (sorry, I can’t remember). I do recall though, our interview prior to his performance and his playing on stage that night completely blew my mind.
Fast-forward (remember audio cassettes?) 36 years. Portland, Oregon. A sold-out Aladdin Theater. Me in the balcony, taking notes in the dark.
Mission accomplished Leo Kottke. You blew my mind again! (tweet this)
One man. Two guitars. One chair. One microphone. A completely reverent standing-room-only audience, hanging on Leo’s every strum, finger-pick and word. Yes, Leo Kottke often fills the air with words between songs. His sometimes-rambling monologues alone are worth the price of admission.
Leo often tunes his guitar while he’s talking, which may explain why on Friday night he expounded upon a diverse range of topics as intricate and unexpected as his guitar tunings, including: ant convulsions, flutes in basements, the theory of relativity, elevators in Switzerland, unemployed piccolo players, a drummer who plays with his face, reincarnation, having the right pet, the effect of rubbing alcohol on his calloused fingertips, balance problems while sitting in a chair, and (the crowd’s favorite) wearing a wet animal skin during his first performance somewhere in downtown Portland (his memory was a but fuzzy on this one), where he was a “prop” for a performance about a guy named “McGee.” “I sat and stank up the stage all night,” he said to thunderous laughter. Adding, “sometimes, I think I still smell that way.”
Playing to the Crowd
There was no Kottke-stanking at the Aladdin on this night. With more than 40 years of touring and nearly 30 albums in his rearview mirror, Leo has an astonishing array of material. And, he knows, it’s always best for an artist to please the crowd. Prior to playing one of his signature tunes, The Fisherman, he said, “This is a song shortly after I recorded it on the first real record I made, and I abandoned it. I couldn’t stand this thing. It bugged me. I didn’t bother figuring out why. But I got and still get requests for this thing, and it occurred to me that it’s not too bright not to play stuff that people would want to hear.” He went on to tell the packed-house the song was inspired by his grandmother, Ethel Olive, who was “the most furious, the most enraged, most volatile fisherwoman who ever drew a breath.”
During his 90-minute performance that left the crowd nearly-begging for a second encore (sadly, the house lights came on), the 68-year-old legend magically plucked, picked and strummed both his six and 12-string electrified acoustic guitars.
Leo began the evening with two songs from his 1983 album, Time Step. Rings, a very sweet, heartfelt love song written for a wedding, and Julie’s House, a-not-so-sweet, broken-hearted post break-up song. Then came two impressive six-string instrumentals, which may have included Vaseline Machine Gun and/or Machine #2 (Titles qualified because I was completely mesmerized by his playing).
Then, much the audience’s delight – Leo picked up his 12-string guitar. I’m pretty sure his first instrumental was Busted Bicycle, but, at this point for me at least, the names of the tunes hardly mattered. Whenever Leo worked his 12-string magic, the crowd at the Aladdin vibrated with his virtuosity.
It would be easy to continue filling this review with words. I’m more than tempted. But, Leo told me during our 1978 interview, “When it’s done. Stop playing.”
So, in deference to one of the most amazing musicians I have ever encountered; my last sentence: If you ever have an opportunity to see this American treasure perform, please take it!