Los Angeles Times (August 22, 1998)

In His Shoes:

Influential folkie Leo Kottke adds toe-tapping to his finger-pickin' good guitar work

By John Roos

      It's easy to think of Leo Kottke as the consummate solo troubadour.  For nearly 30 years, the inventive guitarist has captivated audiences with the lightest of baggage.  Armed only with a guitar and employing his droll sense of humor, a finger-picked style and the occasional vocal, he's a one-man show.

     Or is he?

     Despite outward signs to the contrary, Kottke is no solitary man.  The folk-based musician gains inspiration from his shared vision with others.  During a recent phone interview from his home in Minneapolis, he spoke often about the communal nature of his career, of that ever-present link to both his peers and his audience.

     "It's a real honor that performers like Michael Hedges and Preston Reed have been influenced by my work," said Kottke, 52, "but what knocks me out is that I've gotten to meet--and in some cases, play with--a lot of these guys, including Joe Pass and John McLaughlin.  I mean, what is essentially a solitary exercise suddenly becomes a social thing.  It's pretty startling, really.

     "Hedges showed up one day at a show of mine in Palo Alto, and we've gone on to tour together and have become close friends," Kottke said.  "'He's a fantastic player and innovator, and to know that my music has meant something to him .  .  .  that's very rewarding.  There's this thread that runs through all of us."

     Kottke, who plays solo Tuesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, cites John Fahey as his biggest musical influence.  Fahey, one of the most admired acoustic guitarists in folk-blues circles, played a pivotal role in launching Kottke's career back in 1969 by putting out Kottke's second LP, "6- and 12-String Guitar," was released on Fahey's Berkeley-based Takoma Records.

     Kottke cemented his reputation as a fleet finger-picker, slide master and 12-string virtuoso over the course of his next 24 albums, including last year's "Standing in My Shoes" (Windham Hill/Private Music).

     Not surprisingly, there's no shortage of crisply played hot licks on the 11-song collection, which includes a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "World Turning" and a guest turn by country picker Chet Atkins on the spirited "Twice."

     But "Standing in My Shoes" might catch a few listeners off-guard with its emphasis on dance-inducing rhythms.  The catalyst behind this move was album producer David Z., who shaped Prince's earlier work and is known as the architect of the '80s-era "Minneapolis sound." Studio musician Dave Smith also contributes his slinky grooves on bass.

     "This is the most premeditated record that I've ever made," Kottke said.  "Usually, I just walk in and see what direction the project will take.  But I've been friends with David Z.  for like 25 years, and this was something we always talked about doing together.  I wanted to be able to listen to one [album] with my feet--and this is it."

     "Standing in My Shoes" also features less slide-guitar work than ever.  Kottke said he's become leery of getting trapped by that particular technique.

     "When I heard Son House play the slide live in Philly back in '63, that's when I really fell in love with it," he recalled.  "I like it because it allows you to set a mood, then sustain tension.  .  .  .  and I still enjoy it.  But it's one of those things you can get into too far .  ..  a place you get stuck in if you play it too much."

     "The same is true for open tuning [meaning a chord can be produced without any fingers on the fret board]--it's really just a technique that gives the illusion of being able to do something," he said.  "You need to exercise a little restraint in order to keep growing musically."

     Kottke's musical journey began not with the guitar, but with the trombone and violin.  He said he "somewhat enjoyed" playing those instruments, but it was during an extended illness that an 11-year-old boy in Muskogee, Okla., caught a glimpse of his destiny.

     "It was a sunny day with big, fat clouds in the sky," he said.  "I was sick in bed, and I made up an 'E' chord on this horrible-sounding little toy guitar of mine.  It literally cured me.  .  .  .  I had been sick for a long time, and I was out of bed by the end of the week."

     "It's the instrument itself.  .  .  .  There's just something about the guitar that I have to have.  When it came along, I suddenly belonged to it.  It happened in a split second, and I was set.  I knew I'd be playing the guitar, in some form, for the rest of my life."

     Even so, few players have had careers as long as Kottke's.  The commercial winds of change have ushered in many styles--from heavy metal and disco to punk, grunge and hip-hop--since Kottke's 1968 debut ("Twelve String Blues").

     What's behind his longevity?

     "I honestly don't know.  But I suspect that if someone really has the bug for something--regardless of talent--it will reach other people once you get it rolling," he said.  "Your best chance for the long haul is having the appetite for it.  .  .  .  You just automatically make a connection."

      "Look at Sam Snead.  He started out golfing with sticks in cow pastures.  He just couldn't get enough of whacking some pebbles into the air.  Personally, I don't like golf .  .  .  but he sure does.  And what is he now, 85?"

     The support of the public helps, too.

     "[Russian novelist Alexander] Solzhenitsyn said, 'Writers will not write unless they have some hope of being published,' " Kottke said.  "I used to think that was crap, but now I'm not so sure.  But one thing I do know is that if you do get published, it spurs your writing."

     "As a musician, if you're allowed to have an audience--which is largely a matter of luck--it gives you a good kick.  .  .  .  You start thinking in ways that you didn't before, and you'll produce more.  I've experienced it."

Leo Kottke plays Tuesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.  8 p.m.  $18.50-$20.50 (949) 496-8930.

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