Grand Forks Herald (February 8, 1999)

Things you and I never knew about guitarist-singer Leo Kottke

By Steve Foss

      Sure, I'd listened to Leo Kottke's guitar music.

      You hear it now and then as background on the home improvement shows,and we've got several albums and a CD or two of his. Plus, the main characterof one of my favorite serial mystery novelists is a clinical psychologist and guitarist who likes Kottke's music.

      So when Lisa mentioned tickets for a show of his at the Empire, I said of course.

      They tell you his music is all his own, a combination of genres but with agenius that defies classification. They tell you he's amazing, and other guitarists have been imitating him for years.

      He opened with a couple of pieces I'd never heard, but enjoyed. Hmm, two hours of this, I thought. That'll do just fine. I sat back to drift with the music.

      Then he spoke.

      What I didn't know is: Leo Kottke's funny.

      A rambling disjointed monologue he launched into after his introductory numbers, picking and strumming as he detailed in a dry deep voice the meanderings of a life of more than 50 years, one that's taken him into the rich company of unique people and in front of audiences around the world.

      Like all truly gifted speakers, his spoke to an audience of hundreds as though he was sitting around your living room for an afternoon of beer, conversation and football.

      Some in the audience already knew all that, and their chuckles were for a familiar friend whose humor they'd come to appreciate from long acquaintance. Occasional shouts of laughter escaped from the surprised newcomers like myself and a few others.

      "Oh sure," Lisa laughed at my amazement during intermission. "That's the Leo I remember. He was always funny just like that."

      What you don't know is that Kottke is Lisa's cousin. They went to the same family reunions and picnics in the Cities, and she grew up laughing at his stories and learning from his music. He taught her a couple of bits on the 12-string, which she still plays.

      There was a big difference between the evening Lisa and I were having, I realized, as Kottke brought us through the second part of his show.

      She knew the man. The music that was an extension of his personality was also to some degree an extension of her own, and memories of her girlhood came with it. What is elemental in his music -- in anyone's music -- becomes a looking glass into an artist's personality. What Lisa saw was a reaffirmation of the man she's known. A complex, ironic and occasionally difficult man whose unusual vision of life rings a clear bell through his instrument.

      I listened to that voice and instrument, marveling. Here was a talent that had its way with an audience, that drew it with the man wherever he was going.

      Envy? Yes, I'll confess that his music and humor touches and audience in away I can't approach on my best day of writing.

      He drew us in with beguiling chords and surprising progressions. His tempo was uneven, and just when we thought we understood where he was going, he shifted key or rhythm. Sometimes he sidestepped from classic harmony to dissonance, and back to harmony but in a route as unexpected and refreshing as warm summer rain gentle against your face.

      Kottke is not easy. His music carries a forceful melody, but just when he's about to resolve the progression, he comes up with a slightly twisted parallel melody and you're left breathless, wondering where he's going. It's never where you think.

      Truly, Kottke is the Prokofiev of guitarists.

      After the standing ovations, I had to push Lisa up to say hi after the show. It had been a lot of years, and she didn't want him to think she was sucking up. A friend thought I should have gone with her. That really would have been sucking up, and I did not belong in that part of her moment. We chatted, the friend and I, about little of consequence, and made plans to stop for a cocktail nearby. On stage, my mate patiently outlasted the autograph seekers and hero worshippers. She made a connection with her youth through a man who had become famous, but whom she first had known simply as Leo, her cousin Mary's husband, who was quick with a joke and good with a guitar.

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