|Melody Maker, January 29, 1977|
Leo Kottke, Lion of the Guitar
by Colin Irwin
Article photo (uncredited)
"It's been a model for me of how much feeling you can get out of a guitar without being over-dramatic or over-sad. As a matter of fact, I wrote a song that, in retrospect, bears an awful strong resemblance to that tune. The thing is, when I start thinking about my limitations, I lose that whole spirit you feel when someone's really good and you forget all about guitar or technique or anything. you're not aware of structuring, and you just really enjoy it. Real good stuff conjures up images and feelings in your head and you wander off."
"I've just personally discovered Vaughan Williams. His 'Variations On A Theme Of Thomas Tallis' is just a perfect example of the way music ought to be. Oh God, that thing's BEAUTIFUL. When I think of that...but at the same time it's good to know your limits because then you know where you should be working."
Guitarist Robbie Bashall [sic] once said that he, John Fahey and Leo Kottke were the forerunners of a new American classical music form. Kottke -- who constantly undersells himself and in his last MM interview describe himself as a right-hand virtuoso with a bad left hand -- can't accept that. "To be something like that, you've got to have a total grasp of the tradition which led to where you are. Maybe John does, but none of us are formal musicians so I wouldn't agree with it.
"But I would agree that it's a phenomena in America that was not present up until '62 or '63. People just weren't sitting around dreaming up instrumentals for themselves on guitar. I don't think it's necessarily American, though Americans are taking it as their own. But to call it classical is a contradiction. I don't think it's even neo-classical. Maybe it's neo-romantic."
Bob Dylan invited Leo Kottke to tour on the Rolling Thunder revue. Leo couldn't do it, he'd got solo gigs booked. Nevertheless the compliment of being asked sustained him for some time, and he still gets very animated as he talks of it now. He was a particular fan of Dylan, or a "real hog for him," as he puts it. Says he still trying to work out what Dylan's doing on guitar on "Follow Me Down" from his Freewheelin' album.
Seems Bobby's quite a fan of Leo's in return. The engineer on most of the Kottke albums (though not the new one), Paul Martinson, worked on the re-recording of "Blood On The Tracks" in Minneapolis (Kottke's home), and asked Dylan if he'd heard of Leo. Dylan said yeah and enthused about a Kottke track, "So Cold In China," on his very first album on the Oblivion label, of which only 1,000 copies were pressed. Leo says there are some tapes around in Minneapolis of Dylan and John Koerner playing in local clubs, songs like "They Called The Wind Maria."
He's never met Dylan but knows his brother, and it was Paul who told him he was wanted on the Rolling Thunder Revue. "I would have loved to have done that, but I was going off myself at the time.
"It's really true what people say about the way he records. The first time you run through it without stopping anywhere. It doesn't matter what it is, it goes on the record. Paul told me at the end of one of the tunes he realised he'd used the harmonica in the wrong key. It still went on the record, they just went on to the next tune. And Billy Peterson, the bass player, had to work one night doing a jazz gig or something and they wanted a bass on the tune, but as he wasn't there they just left it off. Billy said they'd run through the tunes once or twice, and he'd say 'You got it?' and it they said yes, that was it. You can hear it. Listen to 'Idiot Wind' and the way the bass goes in there, at first he's not certain of what he should do and then it builds.
"When the day comes that I can't write stuff any more then that's an indication that I'm ready to depart this earth." -- Colin Irwin
Leo Kottke is not at first sight the stuff of which superstars are made. Bit if we can shelve, for a moment, the traditional requirements of a rock giant, it would seem that 1977 could well see him emerging in the forefront of musicians who make it, and who act as catalysts for others in their genre -- rather like, say, Ry Cooder, whose bottleneck wizardry has been such a model.
That Kottke is a master of the 12-string guitar is beyond argument. For some five years he's been close enough to the pure folk world to keep the loyal following which that scene brings, while reaching out and touching a wider field, too. And it's here that he can and should reap a fine harvest in the future.
For the albums Greenhouse, Mudlark and My Feet Are Smiling reveal a guitarist with numbing technique, endless ideas and a finely understated attack. His original inspiration seems to have been blue-grass mountain music, but his bizarre lyrics and hauntingly unusual voice might well become his ace card.
He's baby-faced and modest, and once told the MM: "The way I play is sort of like gossip -- a little bit here, a little tidbit there. There's nothing really tremendous, but it really catches your interest, like hearing about your next-door-neighbour."
A new album is due early in the New Year from this guitar virtuoso whose tone and style are a tonic to all who look for that refreshing sound of an unpretentious musician who doesn't consciously aim for those dazzling heights, but gets them nevertheless. Leo rising in '77! -- Ray Coleman.
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