Los Angeles Times (August 20, 1998)

Style and Substance:

The never-complacent acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke
has been a work in progress for 30 years.

By Josef Woodard

     About 30 years ago, a Minnesotan trombonist-turned-acoustic-guitar-player named Leo Kottke released an album on the tiny Takoma label. Suddenly Kottke found himself with a full-blown career as a finger-picking guitarist. He scratched his head, muttered something witty to his muse and proceeded to play for a living.

     Since then, the acoustic-guitar world has evolved, exploded and retreated, and otherwise gone up one (Windham) hill and down another, but Kottke--with the terminally boyish face and what-me-worry attitude--has been quietly plugging along. He would smirk at the superlative, but Kottke has become something of an American legend in the guitar world, and a king of his own private musical world.

     When he comes to Santa Barbara on Saturday, you will hear both a deep history and musical style in development. You'll also, no doubt, soak up Kottke's signature between-song anecdotes.

     Kottke stays on top of his game, primarily because his unique style separates him from the pack and because his hefty pile of recordings reveals that he never succumbs to complacency. Each one has a distinct identity, especially those produced during his decade of tenure on the Private label.

     Under that label, there have been oddities such as the wonderful quirkiness of his instrumental "That's What" and the gruff vocal charm of "Great Big Boy." His latest, "Standing in My Shoes," goes every which way: He returns to old songs, like the title track, originally from his 1971 album "Mudlark," and his 20-year-old gem, "Vaseline Machine Gun."

     But there are also signs of the times, including drum loops and modern studio treatments from fellow Twin City-man, producer David Z. One song that jumps up for airplay attention is his remake of the old Fleetwood Mac tune "World Turning," sung with Kottke's characteristic, kindly huff of a voice and with his rickety finger-pickin' rhythmic force. Classic rock never sounded so good.

     Kottke fielded a few questions from his home outside of Minneapolis last week, where he's nursing a broken foot suffered in the line of duty, trying to jump over a railing at a gig in Portland. You don't become a veteran without a few bruises.

      Los Angeles Times:

I'm assuming that when you started playing guitar, you didn't expect it to sustain you for 30 years. Do you look over your career with a kind of bemusement?

      Leo Kottke:
I really didn't have any such ideas about this work, and neither did anyone else. I don't get this question anymore, but I used to get asked, "How long do you think this will last?" or "What would you do if it went away?" I could never answer that.

     There were times when it was a serious question that I'd ask myself, usually when I was working too much. That will get ahold of you. But the most that I ever felt it was when the Takoma record came out (in 1969) and it kind of hit. It got a lot of airplay and all of a sudden, something was going on. I really wondered then not so much how long it would last, but what it was and what had changed.

     It took me years before I realized that nothing had changed. It was just that more people had heard me. That's what I've figured out about that employment/existential part of the story. I just zero in on the tunes. That's what I'm in it for, the tunes. Those will happen whether I have a job or not. I'm hooked.

     I never think of you as a veteran, but I guess you have arrived at that status, haven't you?

     I like that you never think of me that way. But I have been around a long time. That's all it takes. You don't have to be good, you just have to hang around.

      Los Angeles Times:
You have to stay alive and keep making good records, too, don't you?

      Leo Kottke:
I guess so. I ran into Dizzy Gillespie once in Italy, in his later years. He was loading the station wagon. He didn't know me from a hole in the ground, but he walked up the street to talk to me and he was just the great guy you'd expect him to be. Basically, we talked about how to get some sleep on the road. He could just knock out wherever he was.

     I had read his book "To Be or Not to Bop," and he talks about what the music demands of you. Sooner or later, you have to live almost like a monk. Otherwise, the music starts to go.

      Los Angeles Times:
So you've become an ascetic of sorts?

      Leo Kottke:
Yeah, I have this little carpet of nails I sleep on . . .

      Los Angeles Times:
On an information sheet, you say that your two big influences are jazz great Joe Pass and folk hero Pete Seeger. Does that cover the poles of your musical style?

      Leo Kottke:
I never really know what to say about influences, because there are just so many that I have had. I have to add Jim Hall to that list. That's just by way of saying I don't know if people can answer the question of their influences. A lot of it would be surprising.

     For one thing, I don't think the list is ever quite as hip as we would hope. I know the first record I ever bought was a single called "Deedee Dinah" by Frankie Avalon. It's pretty rough to admit something like that. I was in the sixth grade.

      Los Angeles Times:
Each of your albums, especially in the last few years, has had a sort of conceptual agenda. Is that your plan?

      Leo Kottke:
It does seem that way, but it's not premeditated. Something just seems to take over while you're doing it. With the latest record, I could have assumed that something along those lines would happen, that it would have an overall rhythmic approach, because of David Z. I've known him since we were starting out.

     We were working in the same studio in Minneapolis, called Sound 80. He was working with Prince, and I was working with me. We intended to make this album back then, but it took us 25 years.

      Los Angeles Times:
Your version of "World Turning" on this new album has stirred a lot of interest. How did you come to focus on that one?

      Leo Kottke:
It was really Dave's idea. He suggested an old Fleetwood Mac tune, from the first version of the band, before the guitar player got religion. I guess because I didn't think of it myself, I couldn't really put a lot of energy in that, but came up with "World Turning" instead.

     I did a few shows with Fleetwood Mac and always enjoyed them. They always had something special, between Lindsay (Buckingham) and Christine McVie. It's all good, but she has got that straight-ahead, unadorned quality that's so satisfying to hear.

      Los Angeles Times:
Is music a parallel reality for you?

      Leo Kottke:
It might be the reality. There are times when I'm almost convinced that music is inhuman, that it comes from somewhere else. Most of the players I know seem to think the music that happens is not what they think of. It's so good for you. Anyone who plays really benefits, whether it's a job or not.

BE THERE: Leo Kottke, Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 110 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. $19.50; (805) 962-8877.

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