Mild-mannered guitar master Leo Kottke has magic fingers.
By Chelley Salmon
MARCH 16, 1998: IRREPRESSIBLE BOYISH CHARM are the first words that come to mind as you watch Leo Kottke, a wizard of acoustic guitar who engages his audiences from the moment he enters the room. Kottke's off-beat humor and self-effacing ramblings have become as much a part of the show as his distinctive style of guitar playing. Even if you're not a guitar aficionado, nor ever will be, this innovative guitarist, composer, arranger and songwriter will intrigue you.
Kottke never gets through more than a song or two before that capricious oratory begins: "I've learned that it's really necessary by this time in the set to speak; and I've learned the hole I can dig for myself by not opening my mouth," he said in a recent phone interview. Chuckling to himself as he tuned his guitar, the banter continued, "...'cause there's a kind of tension and then a hostility that develops if there's this complete silence. The hole I dig by not saying anything is much deeper than the one I'm digging right now.... So I go ahead and speak, wondering at least as much as you what the hell it is I'm gonna have to say."
Such explanations typify the beloved demeanor of this 52-year-old guitar legend, who brings loyal listeners back again and again. Throughout 40 years and 24 albums, the self-taught musician has maintained his unique rhythmic sound and an inimitable baritone voice self-described as resembling "geese farts on a foggy day."
Put a six- or 12-string guitar in his hands, and quite simply, Kottke plays like none other. His nimble, finger-picking style is almost impossible to categorize, even for the artist himself: "I've never come up with a good answer. I usually just say it's a couple of guitars...and me. Technically, it's better to say it's a syncopated right-hand kind of playing. But it covers all kinds of geography, none of it all that well," he laughs. "Which is where my style comes from."
And as much as Tucson loves Leo, the feeling seems to be mutual. He's performed here at least seven times in recent years, and returns on March 28 and 29 to one of his favorite venues, at the Temple of Music and Art. "Between that hall, and the sound system, I feel very complete. Most concerts, especially if you're a soloist, in effect you're playing hurt. But there, everything works. "
For years, Kottke has spent the majority of his time on the road. "It's awfully solitary--you rarely meet anybody. It's very repetitive...you get up too early for a flight that's too early. Two airports and a motel...and the drive in between. That's really about it. The playing is what it's about." Wistfully he adds, "And I love it when I can sleep--that's a big thrill."
After having witnessed his raconteur stage presence, you'd expect him to reminisce as vividly off stage. Such was not the case when asked to recall a few of the more memorable experiences from his travels. Sheepishly, he acknowledged he ought to have a ready response. "Anytime I'm asked to remember something, I can't do it...which makes me a tremendous interview."
In his defense, he offered some perspective instead: "Part of it is that you really do go into a zombie mode until you play. A lot of what goes by really doesn't register. You're in power conservation mode. You kind of ooze through the day until you wake up just before you go on." Pausing for a moment, he then clarified, "Actually, it's after you're on that you wake up.
"And then when you're done usually you're also wide awake. But because you've been playing for an hour or two, you're also stupid...all that concentration which is really just single-mindedness.
"...Wherever you go is unknown, and you don't come back from there for some time after you're done playing. It leaves you pretty speechless. So before you play you're a zombie, and after you play you're an idiot. And in either case, if people try to contact you...like saying 'hello' or 'you dropped your phone book back there'...They find it kind of hard to get a response."
There you have it.
He recalled one time when a fan handed him a picture of her kids after a show, "and I signed it. She just about poked my eyes out, she couldn't believe I did that."
Freak exceptions notwithstanding, longtime fans familiar with his habit of lingering on stage after the show look forward to a chance to chat with their guitar hero as he answers the usual barrage of inquiries--primarily from curious, aspiring guitarists. To them, he's like an old friend lounging on the living room sofa--an unassuming, down-home kind of fellow.
He's also the sort who never misses an opportunity to inject a bit of his appealingly bizarre sense of humor into any given situation. Demonstrating this point, he shares a tidbit of his private life: "I'm not a good cook--I don't think that would surprise anyone. I have one recipe I could impart to your readers...it's called Bean Surprise. You open a can of beans and a can of corn, put it in a bowl and stick it in the microwave until the beans begin to explode...I love it. I made it for Michael Hedges the last time he was out at the house. I thought he'd dig it. He was just sort of mildly amused, though."
Fortunately for audiences, he made the guitar his one true passion (after a short boyhood career on trombone, and before the latter-day preoccupation with microwave cooking). "To this day, I can't get enough of the guitar. And it hasn't changed an iota, not a scintilla...the thrill of it...the fascination of it."
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