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Music Review

Leo Kottke: Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

June 24, 2006 - Brevard, NC:

So here was the great acoustic guitar icon from so many years ago, Leo Kottke, in the Porter Center, along with his muse. Sure sounds like a great conspiracy. Let the journey begin!

But there were questions first. Some have suggested recent performances lack spirit or interest. Perhaps he's just playing to sell records – ah! sorry – I mean, CDs – and he now lacks sufficient energy and focus to present public concerts. Are all the rumors true? Is he just another spoiled and bored rock star? Is his hand injured?

There might be some good reasons to expect some of that. There is the relentless burden of about 100 bookings a year plus maintaining 14 transcriptions, a book of Eight Songs, and 23 principal recordings totaling over 300 tracks – the latest is Sixty Six Steps, from 2005. There are four live recordings, eight compilation recordings with companion artists John Fahey, Peter Lang, Chet Atkins, Lyle Lovett, Margo Timmins, and Rickie Lee Jones. He has provided audio soundtracks for animated children's videos, four video recording soundtracks, four single recordings ("Buckaroo," "Rings," "Power Failure," and "Pamela Brown"), plus personal appearances including A Prairie Home Companion. This has been going on since 1970.

For many, Kottke represents a minstrel era that morphed into what we now call singer/songwriter. Launched from the privacy of an intense and relentless practice space (his bedroom), he burst on the scene in 1969 with the instrumental recording 6 and 12-String Guitar, also known as the Armadillo album after the animal pictured on its cover, with titles like "Vaseline Machine Gun." He produced a personal acoustic sound using a 12 string guitar and exploited the guitar's arpeggio capability with a wide-open solo context like none before. He played in unconventional tunings, too; early in his career, he heavily utilized open tunings, reverting to more traditional approaches later on, but often tuned two full steps below standard. All said, he was unique. He was alone. He was a star.

He sang too. Yeah, well..., ah..., more on that in a minute.

Constant touring, recording, and poor right hand position caught up with him in the early '80s. He acquired tendonitis along with related nerve damage that threatened to end his career. At that point he changed his RH style from a folk-based approach (fingerpicks) to more classical style using the flesh of his fingertips and increasingly small amounts of fingernail. He also completely repositioned the right hand. It worked.

So on June 24, dressed in jeans and a dark brown long-sleeve shirt, a relaxed middle-aged Kottke took center stage and began an 80-minute program of his hits and well known playing style. Performing first with a 12-string guitar and tapping both feet, his unique slide techniques and finger style "Travis" approach were welcome in the tremendous hall. Using wired, off-the-rack Taylor 12 and 6-string guitars, he displayed a deft touch, and the amplification was perfectly modulated. It was a good toe tapping time.

The many audience members must not have received that memo about spoiled and disinterested because an 80% house enthusiastically relished the experience. They looked and behaved like true fringe music enthusiasts, and no wonder: many were loyal listeners to the night's media sponsor, WNCW public radio of Spindale, NC. (I call WNCW Radio Free Mid-Atlantic. They have a huge signal located on top of one of the highest mountains in the region, and they began broadcasting HD radio November 30, 2005. You can probably pick up their signal in Texas.)

The guitarist romped through his various hits in no particular order and told wonderful stories along the way. Therein he revealed a personal philosophy, built on elegance and simplicity. The stories centered on road trips and relationships that in turn gave a disarming childlike and humorous gullibility/innocence. For example, I doubt very much that you would tape over the overflow on the hotel bathtub and then leave the room unattended for an hour or so. He did – and returned to find his room completely flooded. Now, there is certain rationale here: to take a really great bath, you need to get all the way under the water, and often those overflow drains don't allow a high-enough level of water. On the other hand, it would seem prudent to stay focused long enough to stay "on task," you know....

Here is the philosophy winner of the night: "If you want to expand your consciousness, narrow your perspective."

He did sing twice. Is that what they call it? We heard "Louise" and "Corrina, Corrina" but I'm really at a loss to characterize this part of his program. The line from my notebook says "worst singer since Bob Dylan." From the Kottke bio comes "like geese farts on a muggy day." There is a certain charm about everything he does, such as the way he manipulates the mic stand forward and back with his feet. Still, there is no mistaking his playing skills and distinctive pieces. His encore was the famous "Machine #2," which made for a fitting and memorable end to the night.

Steve MacQueen, Director of Operations for the Porter Center, has created a new three-date summer series this year, on which Kottke was the first artist. Dressing down for the occasion he arrived on stage to introduce the evening's artist looking appropriately detached and disheveled while talking about the summer offerings. In January he made the decision to offer summer programming to the community, one that triples in size during summer months, despite the presence of Brevard Music Center's mostly classically-oriented performance series. (BMC does include some pop music acts as fund-raisers.) His objective was to be slightly oblique to BMC programming without overtly competing and to offer something a little different just a few times during the season. He also wanted to give Brevard College and the Porter Center some visibility during the busy summer months, to test a different audience and see if they're receptive (hence the connection to media sponsor WNCW), to increase the variety of programming, and to earn some extra revenue.

With a good line-up and WNCW as media sponsor for all three summer concerts, there is every reason to expect a lot of traffic in Brevard this summer.