Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Leo Kottke – fingers on the pulse of the American guitar

“His contributions to guitar technique are staggering and are still not fully understood. His brilliant synthesis of vernacular tradition and classical intent has fostered a new tradition in guitar music.” That’s John Stropes, director of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, describing why his institution was honoring Leo Kottke with an honorary doctorate in 2008.

“For a long time, the guitar has been my primary interest,” Kotte told Innerviews in 1999. “I see everything through the guitar. My day is almost always built around it. The guitar is almost always beside me, wherever I am.”

Though his career has been further bolstered by Grammy nominations and a place in the Guitar Player magazine Hall of Fame, Kottke has also survived severe physical problems and the losses of his closest peers.

Born in 1945, Kotte moved often throughout his childhood. A benefit of this path was his exposure to different music, including blues, folk and country styles. A firecracker took some of the hearing in his left ear, and his right ear also became permanently damaged during firing practice while in the Naval Reserve.

Upon discharge, Kottke hitchhiked for a while, because it was the 1960s. He landed in the Minneapolis area, where he released his first album of acoustic, finger-style, steel string American Primitivism guitar work, 12 String Blues (Live at the Scholar), in 1969, at the age of 24. Only 1,000 copies were made, and Kottke would re-record some of its songs for his third album, 1970’s Circle Round the Sun.

But his second album, 6- and 12-String Guitar, unveiled in December of 1969, would be the one to cement his reputation. The album was released by Takoma Records, the label founded by John Fahey, himself a legendary finger-style guitarist. Though it was Kottke’s breakthrough, going on to sell a half-million copies, it also established him as the master of a style that would later hurt him.

The album is also known for its armadillo-centric cover art, and Kottke’s note saying that he preferred arrangements without vocals because his singing voice “sounds like geese farts on a muggy day.” On a positive note, the album became a major influence on guitarist Michael Hedges, who would become a friend and tour mate to Kottke.

A Rolling Stone critic at the time wrote, “(His) music can invoke your most subliminal reflections or transmit you to the highest reaches of joy.” Kottke went on the road, winning over large crowds with his beautiful playing and surprisingly funny between-song monologues. His fourth album, 1971’s Mudlark, was his first for a major label. Capitol. It was also his first to add other musicians, including members of both L..A.’s freak scene and Nashville’s country music scene.

As he ventured into the early ‘70s, Kottke began adding vocals, feeling pressure from his label to become more of a James Taylor-style singer-songwriter. He would record seven albums for Capitol, leaving in 1975 for Chrysalis. He continued on a steady path there until 1983, when his career took an unplanned, surprising new direction.

Out of the spotlight for three years, Kottke dealt with tendonitis that he had suffered through years of vigorous guitar playing. Signed to the independent Private Music label,where his quasi-New Age style made more sense than on a major label (especially in the gross, grubby ‘80s), Kottke returned with 1986’s A Shout Toward Noon, displaying a more classical influence on his playing.

Fun fact: around this time, Kottke also scored the Troma movie Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid.

By the late ‘80s, he had returned to fighting form (like contemporaries Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul Simon – the ‘80s were not good for anyone). His next album won Kottke his first Grammy nomination.

In the ‘90s, he collaborated on and off his own albums with like-minded artists such as as Rickie Lee Jones, Lyle Lovett, Chet Atkins, Nanci Griffith and Van Dyke Parks. Michael Hedges and John Fahey both passed away around the turn of the century, and Kottke began a partnership with a younger musician and fan, bassist Mike Gordon of Phish. The title of Kottke’s 2004 album, his last solo to date, summed up his approach cleverly and succinctly: Try and Stop Me.

Leo Kottke
Wednesday, October 29
Clifton Center
2117 Payne St.
$29-$34; 7:30 p.m.

c. 2014 Clifton Center

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