Leo Kottke and Keller Williams Transcend Fear and Loathing in Phoenix

The best treat occurs when Williams joins Kottke onstage for several songs to close out the set -- the interaction is infectious with the dynamic duo trading licks and complimenting each other in virtuoso fashion.

It’s a Friday night in the Valley of the Sun, and there are old-timey troubadours in town as Keller Williams and Leo Kottke bring their “Shut the Folk Up and Listen Tour” to town. It’s a solo acoustic tour on both ends, with elder statesman Kottke and heir apparent Williams each playing separate solo sets with perhaps some collaboration in between. It’s not the type of bill where one would expect there to be any crowd control issues with rowdy fans, yet there are fear and loathing in the air from the moment my attorney friend and I arrive at the ad-hoc gate to the venue.

We pick up our tickets with no problem, only to witness an older music fan being hassled with what looks like an overly zealous search at the entrance. He’s become so frazzled that he’s thrown all his possessions down on the ground in frustration. “I’ve never been treated this way in the 63 years I’ve lived here,” the indignant Phoenix native proclaims as two zit-faced guards search his shoes for a joint.

The attorney has lived in the region for a decade and had warned of the menacing vibes at the Marquee, detailing a sordid history of “Nazi-esque” security tactics. He described one incident at an Umphrey’s McGee show a few years back where a friend of his had not only been ejected by security for smoking cannabis in the smoking section but given a bit of a beating as well that the attorney took the opportunity to photograph. He was then hassled and ejected too, only able to bribe his way back in by agreeing to delete the photos of this foul beating.

“What’s the problem here?” I query the head security lady in an innocuous tone. “We always have the most trouble with this crowd,” she responds with resignation. “What crowd is that?” I reply, suspecting she’s about to say something slanderous about hippies. “The old crowd,” she says with the expected disdain. Meanwhile, the indignant fan is complaining about being groped as if security were TSA agents and he was trying to board an international flight. My attorney steps in before I can even think of saying another word, assuring the security lady that she’ll get no fuss from us and ushering us along in fear we could lose our press passes for interjecting.

It quickly becomes apparent inside that the Marquee Theater is not really a theater at all, but a merely a generic space with some plastic chairs set up. It’s too bad because a show like this seems like it should take place in a venue with more of an Old West saloon vibe. Kottke has long been known as one of the finest acoustic guitar pickers in the land, although didn’t really become well-known to the rock ‘n’ roll crowd until he and Phish bassist Mike Gordon recorded 2002’s fabulous Clone album together and toured behind it as a duo. This raised Kottke’s profile immensely with the younger crowd and so the pairing here with modern acoustic guitar ace Keller Williams seems like a natural.

Kottke is one of the few guitarists in the world with an instantly recognizable sound, and he engages the audience right from the start with his inimitable playing and humorous narratives. An early take finds Kottke reflecting on going to see Pete Seeger in the early ‘60s and confessing, “I’m sorry for stealing everything you ever did.” But Seeger was okay with it and would later invite Kottke to re-record “Living in the Country” with him, which Kottke delivers here. Kottke goes on to reference a cover of a tune by old time Appalachian banjoist Frank Proffitt, saying that he discovered the album in his older brother’s record collection and that Proffitt had built his banjos out of possum parts. Kottke kept interweaving the amusing tales with his phenomenal guitar work, relating another story about seeing Bill Monroe at a festival where people kept rolling down a hill that had beer and hot dogs for sale at the top. “I was the guy yelling ‘Footprints in the Snow’ after every tune,” Kottke says, revealing himself to be a pretty regular fanatical music fan himself and delivering a great rendition of the song here. Another tune takes on something of a Spaghetti Western vibe as if Clint Eastwood might step in for a jam.

One of Kottke’s oddest anecdotes occurs when he advises the audience to avoid wearing polyester when flying because the synthetic fibers will melt into your skin if the plane crashes and burns. Then there’s the quirky upbeat recantation of a destitute friend’s solution to homelessness with a cyclical journey of drinking himself to death’s door to earn a Medicaid paid stay in a hospital ICU. The attorney says the Marquee is a perfect place for such morbid stories due to the venue’s well-earned reputation for over-the-top security tactics.

Kottke’s playing sparkles throughout the set, in the type of way where every song is a treat because you know you’re listening to a true master of the instrument. But the best treat occurs when Williams joins Kottke onstage for several songs to close out the set. The interaction is infectious with the dynamic duo trading licks and complimenting each other in virtuoso fashion. The jam session peaks on a rendition of Frizz Fuller’s “From Pizza Towers to Defeat”, a song about a man who was killed while robbing the last train to Chico. Here Kottke references something about Groundhog Day on Mars that doesn’t quite compute, but it sounds good.

A brief setbreak is followed by Keller’s set, where he entertains the crowd in a similar fashion. He’s clearly influenced by Kottke’s musical genius but weaves it into a rock context like the Gen-Xer that he is. Keller weaves his amusing tales into his actual song lyrics though as he does here on cuts like “She Rolls”, about a sassy gal who gets out of hot water with a state trooper by kissing him to get him off guard before zapping him with his taser and stealing his car. Keller’s also a master at writing songs inspired by his universal experiences in the rock scene, such as “Super Hot Girl” in which he relates that “for every super hot girl in the front row, there’s a super insecure dude standing behind her…”

Keller answers a crowd request for “Gatecrashers Suck” by whipping out the anthemic crowd pleaser on the spot, once again garnering theater-wide solidarity on the lament about the assholes that broke through the back fence at the Grateful Dead’s infamous 1995 Deer Creek show (causing the next night’s show to be canceled by the band.) But the anger is transformed into fun here, with Keller calling for a gender-isolated singalong on the chorus. An artful thematic segue then moves into the classic worker’s lament of the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues”, as the set picks up steam.

He’s known for looping and sampling to create a one-man band behind himself, making it something of a rare treat to see Keller solo acoustic here like he probably played back in his Grateful Dead parking lot days. Whether he’s singing about the Kings of Leon getting shit on by birds in St. Louis or Jesus open-carrying an over the shoulder rocket launcher at Super Target, his musical satire taps into the modern zeitgeist like few others can.

The “Doobie in My Pocket” encore captures this zeitgeist in a renewed way here in 2017. Keller’s tale of paranoia over thinking he has a joint on his person while approaching airport security takes on a timely resonance with the overzealous security here at the Marquee and with Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatening to crack down on the booming medical cannabis industry. If there’s any justice in this world, Sessions will soon be afflicted with a condition for which medical cannabis is the leading recommended pain reliever. Such a scenario could even inspire another classic Keller song.