As the title says, this album offers up no Kottke vocals. Some among us recognize the genius in Kottke’s singing, the self-deprecating fake-out of his oft-quoted assessment of his vocalisms as like “geese farts on a muggy day.” Well, sure. But when the awkward warmth of his voice swaddles the technical flash of his playing, that is yin and that is yang. Still the shut-up-and-play contingent of Kottke fans will cheer for the philosophy behind this one.
Leo Kottke’s virtuosity is so astonishing, and so obvious, that his dexterity and speed form your first impression of his playing. You shake your head, you wonder how did he do that, and you miss the point. To be sure, Kottke has long been a stick to beat other guitarists with, an opportunity to shake your head and smugly ask your kid brother whether he can do that on his acoustic. And many of us have used his expertise as a good excuse not to take up playing at all: why bother putting in all the time and getting all the calluses if you can’t get as good as Kottke? But such slack-jawed appreciation means that his graceful, grace-filled music sometimes get noticed as an afterthought to your first impression of “Wow.” Which is a shame, because few guitarists are so likely to approach grace so often-not only during the subtler moments, when a well-chosen note communicates immeasurably, but also during those flashier passages.
While some of these pieces still show off, you get more out of the slower, more somber cuts like “Three/Quarter North” and “Accordian Bells” (a Christmas-y tune which deserves to be a holiday keeper). Here a spirit of melancholy reins in some of the fretting around and you understand why the native Georgian Kottke works best in the cold Minnesota air. Compare the version of “Morning is the Long Way Home” on this recording with the one on Ice Water. The six-and-a-half minute song on that 1974 LP starts out, and ends up, sounding like a crateload of instruments tunefully falling down a flight of stairs. There is too much going on, except when Kottke solos. But in that solo, and now on this record’s instrumental re-vision, hypercompetence gives way to clarity and joy: Kottke forgets how hard his fingers are working and you do too.