The Herald-Times, Bloomington, Indiana (May 14, 1999)

Leo Kottke
Guitarist extraordinaire plays it off the cuff

By Michelle Henderson

     Leo Kottke defies classification. When he wields his acoustic guitar, the sounds of classical, jazz and folk music pour from its strings.

     His fans can't agree on his genre and Kottke is loathe to classify himself.

     "I have no idea what kind of music I play," he says in a voice that's slow and rough like steel wool.

     "It would be convenient (to classify it) and the marketing people would love it. But as a performer, I wouldn't have much of a life.

     "My music doesn't fit, so Iím immune to trends. It's just me over and over again, and I think thatís why people come to hear me play."

     Genres aside, Kottke creates beauty within a broad range of music.

     In his last CD, Standing In My Shoes, he traveled the map with songs that ranged from the soulful rhythms reminiscent of vintage Steve Wonder to those set off with the infused disharmonies of sliding strings to the picking pop of country and bluegrass music.

     The only constant in his stream of music is his superior mastery of the guitar.

     He'll meander through his melodic journey Tuesday at the Bluebird nightclub where, he says, the biggest decision he'll make is whether to stand up or sit down.

     "I don't know what I'm going to do when I walk on stage. The advantage of being a soloist is that you don't have to have a set list. I just go on with a couple of guitars and try to get in trouble, and if I succeed, I try to get out of it."

     Performing off the cuff doesn't faze him. In his 30 years of professional performances, he says, he's never been short of songs.

     "There's this pile of stuff that I have and whatever demands to be played next is what comes up. That demand doesn't come from the audience or me. It's just how it works."

     Apparently, he has a big enough pile to carry him through his constant touring. He tours 80 percent of the year, he says.

     "I'd say it's perverted that I travel that much," he says. "But I love to play. I'm hooked on the guitar. Can't get enough of it. I'm a hog for it."

     Kottke spent the first three years of his musical life playing the violin and the next 12 playing the trombone. But when he happened upon the guitar, he was hooked for life, he says.

     "I'm doomed. To me the guitar sounds good even when you drop it on the floor."

     Despite his pure love of the strings, he'll accompany a few of his pieces with his voice, a kind of grizzled resonance that seems to rub against the melodies. He says singing is just an accompaniment for the guitar, affording him the chance to play in a different mode.

     "I think it literally comes through a different part of your brain when you're playing behind your own singing.

     "Another way to say it is that a lot of my vocals are failed instrumentals. Sometimes I have to come up with a lyric if I don't have all of the song together, but I have enough there that I really like."

     His love for performing is so much a part of him that he prefers not talking about it. Though known for his witty on-stage comments, he'll only say that they are not thought out beforehand.

     When asked if his versatility is a factor in his popularity, he says that it doesn't bear looking at, and it's really none of his business.

     Instead, he prefers talking about his best scuba dive — a night dive where he saw fish asleep while floating.

     And he loves railing about his distaste for pre-planned, pre-packaged things, which somehow translates to marketers, public relations executives, politicians and morticians.

     But of the things he finds most distasteful, a little club in Bloomington makes the top of his list.

     "There's only one club I won't play in, and it's a club in Bloomington, Indiana," he says. "I can't remember the name of it, but the dressing room was so foul, I think it's haunted.

     "The place just gives me the creeps. I played there years ago, and I've played at other places in Bloomington since then, but I won't go back there.

     "The only other place I've gotten the creeps like that was a club I played in Wellington, New Zealand. The dressing room there was creepy and I finally walked out onto the center stage and looked out into this dark old hall. I asked the stage manager if anyone else had ever gotten the creeps there.

     "He said the architect who built the place walked out onto stage just like I had. When he finished the project he went up into the dressing room and hung himself.

     "Obviously, he was a person who took things a little more seriously than I do. But this place in Bloomington was similar to that place. It was just really bad in there."

     No doubt he's a man who speaks his mind, and he'll be unloading it during his upcoming performance.

     "You can't get up there and simply play. You owe your audience the courtesy of speaking to them. And it's none of that, 'Hello Bloomington, I'm so glad to be here, I have a wonderful audience' crap. A fire plug could dream that up. You've really got to talk to them."

     With nothing pre-set, all you'll be able to bet on getting at Kottke's show is a dose of dry wit, and a man who loves his music.

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