My first exposure to Leo Kottke came courtesy of late night FM radio in the early ’70s. The perpetually stoned, third-shift jock on my favorite Lansing, Mich., station was not bound by a playlist and I was always prepared to capture any mutant sound he released into the wild with my crappy tape recorder and equally crappy 69-cent cassettes. On a steamy Saturday night in 1973, my buzzed mentor cued up a blazing acoustic guitar instrumental that he ultimately identified as “Blue Dot” by what I imagined was at least two guitarists but which he confirmed was actually a single human named Leo Kottke.
Over the next few weeks, I heard several other amazing things by Kottke from the same source, his recently released live album, My Feet Are Smiling, including his heartbreaking turn on Paul Siebel’s “Louise,” a song that still brings me to the edge of tears.
At some point in my Kottke education, I developed a theory about his almost supernatural guitar abilities, namely that he must be one of Erich Von Däniken’s chariot gods, a musical alien with a third arm stashed in his rib cage that emerges unnoticed to either chord or pick as needed.
In 1983, I had my first opportunity to see Kottke at Bogart’s; 10 minutes into his set, I moved to the left railing as close as I could get to the stage to spot the phantom arm. No such appendage presented itself, leaving me with magic as the only other suitable explanation.
The fact is that Kottke is just supremely talented, fingerpicking his way around 6- and 12-string guitars with flawless dexterity, infinite grace and mind-boggling invention. And when his challenging attack style resulted in an almost terminal case of tendinitis in the ’80s, Kottke simply learned a new way to do the impossible and continued to confound those who play the exact same guitars without extracting anything approaching the same sound from them.Kottke’s recording career began an astonishing almost 45 years ago, and in that time he has released 21 studio albums, four live sets, eight best-of collections, two great collaborations with Phish’s Mike Gordon and even several soundtracks. And I still can’t figure out how he does what he does; I’m just eternally grateful that he does it.
LEO KOTTKE performs Thursday, May 1 at 20th Century Theater. Tickets/more info here.