With over 20 years of experience, Leo Kottke has carefully developed a no-nonsense approach to both his career and his music. With his latest release, simply titled One Guitar, No Vocals, he finds himself back in some familiar territory.
On the surface, this album bears a striking resemblance to his 1969 debut 6 and 12 String Guitar but with one major difference: an older and slightly more cynical instrumental virtuoso has replaced that once young and fresh-faced folk prodigy. The gentle country blues of “Three/Quarter North” and the jazz syncopation and harmonies of “Peckerwood” are both indicative of his 1960s coffee shop pedigree while the blues-gone-wrong approach of “Too Fast” and the quasi-Baroque “Retrograde” highlight his boundless talent as a composer.
As an artist, he has had an immeasurable impact upon numerous guitarists such as Michael Hedges and, more recently, Keller Williams. And during his career, Kottke has incorporated nearly every style into his music, including the unlikely influences of hip-hop and funk, making him required study for any up-and-comer and a crucial element in the development of the guitar-master genre.
His solo appearance at the Madrid Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, was certainly indicative of all these things and more, including his unassuming demeanor and sly sense of humor. Walking out onstage dressed in khaki pants, a black t-shirt, and a pair of beat-up sneakers, Kottke quietly approached the mic and mumbled, “I’m not sure if I should be playing right now, but it just seemed right”.
With a mischievous grin on his face, Kottke launched into his set, which consisted of a number of selections from One Guitar, No Vocals. His penchant for lush jazz chord voicings and minute rhythmic intricacies were obvious. Like a good storyteller, each piece was finely detailed and immaculately presented.
Kottke switched back and forth between his 6- and 12-string guitars, which required a great deal of tuning and retuning throughout the night. Taking full advantage of the dead time, he regaled the audience with tales about life and sickness on the road (including a curious story of an unusual sleeping disorder he had while on tour in Germany) and the inspirational and compositional basis of some of his pieces. After a while, the stories began to compete with his musical selections in terms of their humor, flat-out charm and odd complexity.
Even with a sarcastic warning to the audience early on that his “stratospheric range” had been “reduced by a stratosphere or two” due to being under the weather, Kottke managed to sing a few tunes as well, including a whimsical cover of “Rings”, a tune he has performed and recorded with Los Lobos as well as turn on the traditional “Corrina, Corrina”, a tune also made famous by Bob Dylan.
However, one of the highlights of the evening came with a rendition of the Byrds psychedelic composition, “Eight Miles High”. Though included on his 1971 release Mudlark, this particular selection was unexpected though warmly welcomed by the audience. Kottke’s rough-edged baritone, made a little rougher and more baritone by his cold, lent a somewhat sinister and somber mood to the lyrics. Meanwhile his characteristic guitar work thoroughly captured and distilled the essence of Roger McGuinn and David Crosby’s dystopian anthem of the ‘60s.
From thoroughly exploring his folk roots to establishing his place at the forefront of contemporary instrumental music (and known for singing an occasional tune along the way), Kottke has never shied away from attempting to find a fresh approach to old forms while at the same time furiously inventing new ones. His Thursday night performance at the Madrid Theatre provided more than ample evidence to these facts.