The Advocate (June 12, 1997)

Leo Kottke's cup runneth over:
on album 24 Kottke delivers rhythm extra ordinem

by Susan E.  Slattery

     You'd think after 24 albums, the man who virtually changed the orbit and essence of the steel-stringed guitar would have a little ego.  This is the guy they call "the man." His 6- and 12-string fingerstylings and disarmingly sexy slide work are unparalleled.  Like some fleet-fingered avatar he and his crafted approach have nourished the musical souls of such innovators as Michael Hedges, along with generations of acoustic guitarists and aficionados.  Kottke's is a singular gift...  superbly inimitable, utterly inspirational, graciously perpetual.  

     Yet Leo Kottke is unassumingly apologetic.  Nearly 30 years after his revolutionary 6 and 12 String Guitar (1969) LP took the acoustic world by storm, Kottke thinks he ought to head on down to the music school for a few lessons.  "I know I'm a different player and a better player," he says of his evolution.  "I think my judgment has developed, and my sense of proportion has become a little more subtle.  I have a good right hand, I know I have a voice.  Ideally, you should also have a good left hand, as much theory and harmony as technique, right hand, and voice.  I've neglected those, and in the end, as...  actually, (jazz bassist) Charles Mingus used to say...  it's actually an insult to those who've gone before you that you come along and don't learn."

     Perhaps.  Certainly true for the mass of men.  But it's difficult to imagine Leo Kottke getting any better.  Is there anything really, for this guy to learn? Opinions of course, may vary.  Purists have misgivings about his lugubrious and bottomless vocals.  And Kottke has never quite been able to translate his standing as one of America's finest acoustic guitarists into commercial success.  But then again, his newest release -- Standing In My Shoes (1997) -- has garnered him more radio play than anything he's done in the last ten years.  

     The album is his eighth in a decade-long association with Private Music, and it's the first album Kottke -- who regards recording as a somewhat necessary evil -- actually found rather painless.  Part of this might have been due to the presence of an old friend in the producer's chair -- David Z, who was the early developer of the Minneapolis Sound (think Prince, The Time, Lips Inc.) "Something most people wouldn't know is that there is a very strong jazz influence here (in Minneapolis)," Kottke says.  The two had threatened to produce an album together for a long time, and Kottke goes so far as to say the producer was the record's inspiration.  

     "To me, every record I make is, in a sense, the same old thing," says Kottke.  "The differences come really by chance...  it has a lot to do with how you're getting along with the other people (in the studio).  Musicians tend to be an undersocialized bunch.  We all spent years locked away in little rooms learning to play.  So when you're in the studio, you're in a pressure cooker -- you have people who aren't that socially adept in a very fraught social situation...  and you can almost hear that on the records.  I've known David Z for 25 years, and I think the album has that feel to it."

     He's right.  Standing In My Shoes is every bit as agreeable and unassuming as its creator.  Kottke wanted it to be a rhythm record, something that would make his feet happy -- music that moved.  "Anything that is a rhythm on the track tends to be in the foreground rather than the background," he says.  "This is common in pop music right now, but it got a lot of its beginnings here in Minneapolis." This approach gives Standing In My Shoes a sonorous, sensuous feel.  

     Among the standouts in this winsome collection are a fresh reading of the folk-blues classic, "Corrina, Corrina," one of the three tunes here on which Kottke sings; and this critic's pick: the sublime, rhythmic mover "Realm." Kottke likes this tune because it reminds him of his early influence, John Fahey, who sparked Kottke's imagination, and planted in him the notion of the guitar as a richly expressive place.  

     Kottke's got some able contributors on his latest outing, too.  Among them bassist David Smith and the venerable Chet Atkins, who lends his soaring lead guitar to the soothingly uplifting charmer "Twice."

     A reprise of "Vaseline Machine Gun," a tune Kottke first released on 6 and 12 String Guitar, is the only one here on which he plays the 12-string.  It's got a nice little walking rhythm element backed by some real sexy finger licks, combined with the disarming ease of Kottke's slide.  "I know the thing that first got me to the next level was slide...  it's a real breadwinner.  If it's good, people go crazy for it." These days he's not playing much of it on stage, though.  "My interest is really more in harmony in the last few years.  For a long time I wasn't playing much 12-string, and that was another thing I was known for."

     These days, Kottke finds himself a little more reliable.  "Musically I'm better.  I'm slower, when I write, but I'm better.  I write less material, but I think overall, the material is better.  It's like what Joe Pass told me...  ‘I've changed a lot.'" There was a time when Kottke delivered a new album every six months.  But forced inspiration gives you something entirely different -- now he actively waits for inspiration.  "It helps to read a lot," he says.  "I think good readers tend to be a little more developed.  I read everything from Moby Dick to the cereal box."

     As idolized a musician as he might be -- it is he against whom all others are measured -- Kottke considers himself more of a writer than a player.  Any good musician can sit down and quickly pick up any given tune, he believes, within reason.  A good musician can play anything.  "I can't do that.  Give me a little time and I can work something out.  And of course, I'm really good at playing my stuff."


     Who in the world would possibly want Leo Kottke to play anything else?

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