Rocky Mountain News (April 3, 1997)

Brand-New "Shoes"

Leo Kottke's New CD Stretches His Guy-With-A-Guitar Image

by Marc Shulgold

      Many guitarists have tried, but no one has duplicated Leo Kottke' s 6- and 12-string onslaughts.  And there are reasons for that.  For one thing, few can churn out waves of hammer-like passages with the fury and precision of the Minnesota-based picker.  And of those who can, few are able to bring shape and logic to all those notes.

     But the trickiest thing about Kottke's sound is that it is constantly changing.  Case in point: his upcoming release, Standing in My Shoes, which features a drum machine, among numerous sonic effects.

     It's a wildly different texture and one that exists only in recorded form.  Kottke onstage is still just a guy and his guitar, as his army of fans will discover when he appears in concert at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday with Canadian classical guitarist Liona Boyd.

     "I've found that what (electronic gear) you drag onstage diminishes your playing, rather than adds to it," he said.

     That's not the case in a recording studio.  Kottke's albums often stretch the possibilities of the acoustic-guitar sound, though he' s hardly impressed by the process.  "Some musicians love the studio atmosphere, but I'd rather play than record," he said.  Though he acknowledges that the process of making an album has an element of socializing, "it's too grim to call it a party," he said.  "I never really know what will come out of it."

     Kottke brought an understandable sense of uncertainty to his most recent project, recorded last fall but not due for release until May (ah, the pleasures of record-company politics).  His producer, though an old and trusted friend, comes straight from the world of cutting- edge rock: David Z (a k a David Rivkin), a former Minnesotan who formerly produced the artist formerly known as Prince.  Z has also produced the Fine Young Cannibals and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

     The result is not exactly folk music.  In addition to a drum machine, the new disc features electric bass, Hammond organ, sitar and backup singers - which should prove quite a jolt to Kottke's purist fans.

     "David told me he liked the rhythmic aspect of my records, and so he worked to emphasize that," the guitarist said.  Though he'd used a rhythm section before, Kottke had never made such a strong commitment to drumming.  But he went along for the ride.  "The recording studio has such a desiccating atmosphere - it's like a truth serum," he said.  "Even after all these years, it's hard to accept that.  When you make an album, you always assume the best and then get a blend of the worst." Kottke at his sardonic best.

     Standing in My Shoes deftly mixes vocal originals (highlighted by the title track), new instrumentals (such as the dreamy Across the Street), fresh takes on rock standards (Fleetwood Mac's World Turning) and revivals of Kottke standards (Cripple Creek and a slowed- down Vaseline Machine Gun).

     Selecting earlier instrumentals for new treatment proved fairly easy, despite the huge number of choices.

     "If the tune is still intact and the structure is right, it usually means it's worth doing again, " he said.  "There were usually only one or two pieces on a record that were finished, anyway."

     During his brief fling with Capitol Records, he explained, Kottke owed a new disc every six months, but his creative juices rarely flowed that fast.  "I was always late, always in trouble," he said with a chuckle.  The results were more like works in progress.

     Live performing, then, has always served as the perfect antidote to the perils of studio work - at least, once he recovered from early bouts with stage fright.  "I found that I had to develop techniques about (keeping) time onstage," he said.  "Your internal motor does tend to take off.  When you work with other people, it's easy to find that pocket (of comfort), but it's tough when you're all alone.  `There are nights when you crash and burn.  So you have to look at the totality of the evening."

     The Paramount bill of Kottke and Boyd is an unusual one, though not unprecedented for him.  He used to swap tunes onstage with classical guitarist Pepe Romero, as well as flamenco and jazz players.  Keeping such company doesn't change his approach, however.  Referring to the classical buffs attending this weekend's show, he said: "You don't try to win them over.  You just play." For his fans, that should suffice.

IF YOU GO: Guitarists Leo Kottke and Liona Boyd will perform at 7:30 p.m.  Saturday at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Pl.  Information: 830-8497.

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