Leo Kottke sits down with an acoustic guitar—likely one of his trademark Taylors—as the uproarious applause of the full theater before him quiets. He launches into “William Powell,” plucking and hammering away furiously at an open E chord for about four bars.
Then he takes a breath and stops.
“That’s a little fast. I’m going to slow it down,” he tells the crowd in Boulder, Colo.
This opening scene from his 1995 live album is Kottke at his finest: patient and willing to give things a second try. Whatever it takes to get the song right—because to Kottke, not much matters more than the music.
“I’d probably be hiding in a dumpster without it. It never changes, but I do,” Kottke tells Santa Cruz Weekly about his music, via email. “I’m the drooling, twitching supplicant hoping for another few bars to come along. The drooling and twitching gets worse, more desperate and humiliating, but the tunes are better. Well, they’re different. All that drooling changes things.”
This is classic Kottke, too: irreverent, quirky, self-effacing. And apparently the more he drools, the better his songwriting gets.
Kottke, who takes the stage at the Rio Theater Friday March 28, insists on doing interviews through email because once he starts talking, he can’t stop. In concerts, his charming stories go on for about four minutes with no beginning or end. At some point he just looks down and starts his next song. He has been known to let a 10-minute phone interview go on for an hour.
Mentored by the late John Fahey, 68-year-old Leo Kottke plays mostly instrumentals that fall somewhere between Americana and rock. People listen because of his beautiful songwriting, his knack for keeping rhythm with alternating bass notes while playing lead and, of course, his pure finger speed. But Kottke thinks of his style not as fast, but dense.
“When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was knock myself out. I was a hog,” Kottke says. “And I rushed. Rushing is nasty. I still play some of that dense stuff, but I know how to do it now. I can make room for everything, not just the going nuts.”
Really it’s Kottke’s songwriting, instrumental and otherwise, that sets him apart from the rest. When it comes to actually playing, he understates his mastery of his instrument. In watching him, it’s clear: once he gets in the zone, the guitar takes over.
“I’m a bad practicer,” he writes. “Sonically, I’m an evil blend of sloth and gluttony. The more I drool and twitch, though, the more I’m willing to do some actual work. I’m much more a writer than a musician. I can write a tune, but the guitar runs me. If you’re a musician, you run the guitar.”
Kottke, a two-time Grammy nominee with a Midwestern wit, has overcome steep odds to become one of the best guitarists today. He suffered high-end hearing loss from a firecracker as a child, and later in the Navy during a firing practice. More recently, he had to change the position of his right hand to lessen the impacts of tendon damage in his arm.
Born in Athens, Ga., Kottke grew up all over the country—in 12 different states—as his family moved every few years. He played trombone as a young child until, at age 11 when living in Oklahoma, he discovered the guitar and never looked back. After the guitar, he says, these days the trombone is still his second-best instrument—although he adds, “It’s a big gap.” And somehow on those 20 frets and six strings, Kottke always manages to find something original he hasn’t done yet—and hopefully no one else has either.
“I’m just having a good time,” he writes. “It’s frustrating when you find out that the tune you just wrote is the theme from Rocky and Bullwinkle, but the thing that matters, in that instance, is that you found out. There’s just something about the guitar that I can’t get enough of.”
Leo Kottke plays Friday, March, 28, at 8pm at the Rio in Santa Cruz; $35.