For more than four decades, Leo Kottke has been blowing minds on guitar.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Over the past 45 years, guitarist Leo Kottke has quietly become known as an innovator, a pioneer and an inspiration to guitar geeks, folk purists and Americana aficionados.
Kottke’s delivery on guitar may look like a haphazard sea of fingers fluttering in typhoon-caliber winds, but it’s calculated genius that at times achieves a sound that seems to wield the might of John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Mississippi John Hurt all at once. He’s able to mimic a full band, with a rhythm section, through a simple acoustic 6 – or 12-string guitar and without so much as a looping pedal helping him out.
Kottke’s blend of jazz, rock, bluegrass and Appalachian folk has raked in a plethora of accolades throughout the years: He was voted “Best Folk Guitarist” for five consecutive years by the readers of Guitar Player magazine and Performance Magazine’s “Best Instrumentalist.” He was inducted into the Guitar Player Hall of Fame in 1978 and scored Grammy nods in 1988 and 1991.
Kottke performs a special solo show Saturday at the Monterey Conference Center’s Steinbeck Room. In 2008, he received an honorary doctorate in music performance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts. John Stropes, director of UWM’s Guitar Program, summed up the musician’s impact on the world nicely: “[Kottke’s] music captures a broad variety of idiomatic sounds from the fullness of American life,” Stropes said. “His contributions to guitar technique are staggering… his brilliant synthesis of vernacular tradition and classical intent has fostered a new tradition in guitar music.”
Kottke has released 22 studio records and 14 compilations, live albums and soundtracks throughout his career. Here are 10 things they reveal – and 10 things the guitarist taught the world.
1. Hearing loss isn’t a hindrance even if you’re a professional musician. When Kottke was young he lost some hearing in his left ear after a firecracker incident and he later suffered hearing loss in his right ear as a result of a live-fire excercise while serving in the Naval Reserve.
“You can be a lot deafer than I am and still play,” Kottke told Westword. “My favorite line about this comes from Charles Ives: ‘What’s sound got to do with music?’”
2. Reach out to your mentors. Kottke sent his 1970 sophomore album Circle ’Round the Sun – featuring eight studio re-recordings of his 1969 live LP 12-String Blues – to American primitivism inventor John Fahey. Shortly after, Kottke was signed to Fahey’s label and began making a name for himself.
3. Sharing the bill on a record with killer musicians is always a good thing. Kottke teamed up with Fahey and acoustic guitarist Peter Lang on 1974’s instrumental masterpiece Leo Kottke, John Fahey & Peter Lang, the biggest selling fingerpicking album ever recorded.
4. Composing a suite for amplified steel-string guitar and chamber orchestra isn’t a career-ender. Kottke’s “Ice Fields” is considered a landmark for guitar concerti. The piece features five movements with orchestral backing. Though the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed “Ice Fields,” it has never been released on record due to the high production cost of enlisting a full orchestra.
5. If you can play like Kottke, someone from the seminal jam band Phish is bound to want to collaborate. Kottke has made two records – 2002’s Clone and 2005’s Sixty Six Steps – with Phish bassist Mike Gordon. The latter is 14 tracks of breezy folk rock.
6. Live albums rule. Kottke’s 1973 My Feet Are Smiling was recorded Dec. 19 and 20, 1972, at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The record scored widespread praise. “The prodigious technique, deadpan sense of humor, and infamous singing are all evident less than a minute into the opening tune,” music critic Mark Allen wrote.
7. What may look like a career-ending ailment could just be a brief hiccup. In the ’80s, Kottke was forced to change his style of polyphonic fingerpicking after he began to suffer from nerve damage and tendonitis caused by his hard-hitting picking style. Kottke began employing more of a classical style, one that, as he told the Honolulu Pulse, allows him to “get crazier and more like a grenade.”
8. Standard tuning is for the birds. Since his early days, Kottke has always been a non-conformist as far as tuning. He’s used different variations ranging from open tuning to tuning his guitar two steps below traditional tuning.
9. The first is sometimes the best. Kottke’s 1969 studio debut 6 – and 12-String Guitar is his best-selling album. In 1970, Rolling Stone wrote: “With all the shit that has been released recently, it was a distinct pleasure to come across this album… He’s an acoustic guitarist from Minneapolis whose music can invoke your most subliminal reflections or transmit you to the highest reaches of joy… anything in addition to his guitar would be superfluous.”
10. Trombone may lead to guitar prominence. Kottke studied the unlikely instrument for three years before quitting when he was 15. He wrote a short story about the experience called “Trombone.” “Any fool would know that I was a lucky kid,” Kottke writes in his story. “I got to play, so I get to play. I was guided by trombonists, note by note, toward home.”
LEO KOTTKE performs 8pm, Saturday, March 23, at the Monterey Conference Center (Steinbeck Room), 1 Portola Plaza, Monterey. $35. 646-3770.