November 6, 2003

Guitar Virtuoso Pays a Visit to Ithaca

Print More

Leo Kottke is properly regarded as one of the most innovative, and perhaps, under appreciated American finger-style guitarists of the 20th century. Self-deprecating and unassuming, Mr. Kottke, 58, is renowned in folk and instrumental music circles for his uncanny mastery of his instrument. Once astoundingly prolific in his recorded output as well as in his concert appearances, lingering pain in his hands has led to a decline in touring and studio work over the past decade. So, it was with unabashed delight and uncommon enthusiasm that a sold-out crowd at the Kulp Auditorium at Ithaca High School welcomed him to the stage Saturday evening. Dressed simply in jeans and a black shirt, Mr. Kottke proceeded to regale his audience with his instrumental virtuosity as well as the humorous, and often rambling, stories and anecdotes that have become a trademark of his live performances. His simple dress also matched a stark stage set-up: adorned only with a couple of microphones, a chair, and a guitar. But the mood in the Kulp auditorium was anything but subdued. Mr. Kottke played a varied, but generally up-tempo, set-list, with songs ranging from his earliest LPs to material that has yet to be released on tape. The sound of his guitar was lovely and the mix was superbly engineered to take advantage of the acoustics in the auditorium — Mr. Kottke himself even commented on the “damn good mix.” As for his voice, well, it sounded just like the man: gruff but good-natured, powerful but never overbearing.

The years have, sadly, taken their toll on the Georgia native. His hand problems have forced him to alter his technique noticeably and his formerly remarkable accuracy has suffered slightly as a result. Still, Mr. Kottke has retained his ability to expertly navigate the fret board, creating memorable melodic passages and rhythmic sequences — particularly on the twelve-string guitar. His compositions are full of the quirky nuances that, along with his breathtaking technical proficiency, endear him to his undeservingly small but loyal fan base. And, unlike some of his contemporaries, Mr. Kottke has continuously adapted his music to include widely varying genres. This ability to skillfully and deliberately blur the distinguishing lines between disparate musical styles in his compositions was on full display Saturday. Most notably, Mr. Kottke played a few tunes off of his most recent album Clone — a collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon. The idea behind one of the songs, according to Mr. Kottke, had come to Mr. Gordon in a dream. The concept was to superimpose a 4/4 time vocal over guitar and bass accompaniment in 5/4. It was, he said, “a bit like asking a man to walk in two different directions at the same time.” The song itself, “The Collins Missile,” is a sardonically contemptuous tune that featured Mr. Kottke’s impeccable picking and growling baritone. Mr. Kottke announced, to much cheering and applause, that the two expect to release the second installment in their collaboration early next year. His next solo album is also set for a 2004 release date.

Through his recent projects with artists such as Mr. Gordon, it’s easy to get the impression that Mr. Kottke feels the need to demonstrate his relevancy in today’s musical universe. But that’s not the case. In fact, he’s simply doing what he’s always done: namely, pushing the envelope by embracing popular trends and transforming them into something that is uniquely Kottke-esque. And, indeed, his unusual blend of progressive folk and traditional finger-style guitar is wholly incompatible with any current radio format. But to the audience gathered on Saturday, Mr. Kottke clearly had nothing to prove. Each song was met with a thunderous ovation and each story with robust laughter — all well deserved. It may be that Mr. Kottke’s brand of guitar virtuosity will never gain a broad acceptance outside a relatively small niche of musical connoisseurs. That’s a terrible shame. In these days of pre-packaged pop artists singing trite and disposable songs, we could use some more of Mr. Kottke’s wit, wisdom, and tremendous musical literacy. Thanks, Leo, for helping to remind us of the pleasures of a true virtuoso.

Archived article by Mathew Gewolb