Listening to a couple of Leo Kottke’s albums, 1997’s Standing In My Shoes and 2004’s Try and Stop Me, makes it extremely difficult to classify the immensely talented acoustic guitarist. Standing In My Shoes features big riffs and a modern sound, with a drumbeat right out of a hip-hop tune on the release’s title track. In addition, his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “World Turning” starts with a thicket of percussion and ends with a sitar cutting through the music like a laser.
Try and Stop Me is an altogether different beast. Very intimate sounding, almost all of Try and Stop Me is just Kottke and his guitar playing abstract fingerstyle guitar songs like “Death By Reputation” and “Mockingbird Hill.” Almost all of the album sounds timeless and placeless—like it could have been played for the Queen of England in a parlor during the 1700s or at a Mississippi juke joint at the turn of the century—except for the last tune, a cover of the Weavers’ “Banks of Marble” with Los Lobos that sounds like a Dust Bowl ballad sung with Kottke’s ocean deep voice.
In an e-mail interview with Kottke, the Minnesota-based guitarist admits that both of the vastly different releases are not an apt representation of his true self. When asked which better represents the true Leo Kottke, he responds with “neither,” adding, “I’ll never get it right.”
Despite the air of mystery around his musical identity, Kottke is able to pinpoint one of the reasons why he got into acoustic music: John Hurt.
“Sometimes, I think it was his hat,” he jokes. “His nature and the nature of his playing were irresistible. There was a great kindness and a rolling rhythm in his music.”
After learning to play guitar, Kottke traveled around the East Coast as an itinerant musician, took a brief stab at college life and had a stint in the Navy. Following these formative experiences, Kottke released his debut CD, Twelve String Blues, in 1969.
By 1971, Kottke released his major label CD, Mudlark, on Capitol Records. At the time, the record company tried to promote Kottke as a singer/songwriter type. Kottke seems to think he doesn’t quite fit the bill of a singer/songwriter.
“Whatever I am, I just feel lucky,” he says. “But, my curiosity will always be for the guitar.”
Following the release of over 25 recordings including 1973’s My Feet Are Smiling and 1975’s Chewing Pine, Kottke is garnering a lot of interest for a project with Phish’s former bassist Mike Gordon. In 2002, the duo released an album titled Clone.
Now, Kottke is getting ready to release a new album with Gordon in the not-too-distant future. “The label is trying to decide when to release it,” he says. “Things get hairy when a label likes a record—and they like this one. It’s called Sixty-Six Steps. It’s basically a trio with a lot of vocals and maybe three instrumentals.”
With interest in this album from both Kottke’s fans and Phishheads, it is possible that this upcoming release with Gordon will finally define the elusive guitarist for a large number of music enthusiasts.
Leo Kottke plays the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th Street in Carmel, Saturday, March 27 at 8pm. $27-37. 620-2048.