Leo Kottke | August 8, 2003 | North Carolina Museum of Art Raleigh, NC

Leo Kottke walked on stage alone. In his hand was an acoustic guitar. Thousands of people stared. There were no other musicians, no smoke machines, no synchronized dancing. Just two hands and a guitar. In the end, nothing more was needed.

Terms like "musical genius" or "master of the acoustic guitar" are thrown about too loosely these days, yet these shopworn phrases are the only ones which fit. Kottke has been dazzling audiences with his unique fingerpicking style since the late '60s. He appeared on jamfans' radar after his 2002 album Clone, a duet with Phish bassist Mike Gordon. Their tours together, as well as an appearance at Bonnaroo this summer, have helped introduce a new generation to his fleet-fingered fretwork and silly storytelling style.

The North Carolina Museum of Art features a beautiful sloping lawn outside where they host concerts, movies, and other events. One of the most popular features of the venue is the ability to bring in outside food and drinks. A picnic and a bottle of wine can add layers of enjoyment to a pleasant summer evening in the grass. Some folks at last summer's Doc Watson concert lugged an entire picnic table onto the field with them.

Gordon's bass added a bouncy countermelody to their musical adventures on the Clone album, filling in and complimenting the guitarist's shifting melodies. I was curious to see if he would attack any of these numbers in his solo performance. He wasted no time proving his courage, opening with "Disco," one of the most driving songs from the record. Although I had to concentrate to avoid adding Gordon's classic bass line in my head, he tore through the song with masterful dexterity, adding even more notes than in the recorded version. When you look at these pictures, it will probably appear as if Leo Kottke has ten fingers. However, scientists believe he also has several dozen "invisible fingers," which is the only explanation for the amount of sound he's able to coax from his guitar.

The set continued with "Standing on the Outside," the opening track from 1975's Chewing Pine album. "You won't see Britney Spears doing this," he deadpanned, further illustrating the stark contrasts between those who can entertain a crowd all by themselves, and those who need dozens of people on stage to get their message across. He soon plucked the familiar opening notes to "William Powell," one of his most impressive and beloved songs. When I brought a friend who didn't know Kottke to see the duet shows with Gordon last fall, they opened with this number, and I've never forgotten the look of bedazzlement on my friend's face. This song encompasses all that is Leo Kottke, the furiously fast melody, the sweeping agility, and the overall catchiness. Originally released on 1989's My Father's Face, he acknowledged its power by also choosing it to open his 1995 Live album.

Next up was another selection from Clone called "From Pizza Towers to Defeat." Although written by Frizz Fuller, whose song "Tiki Torches at Twilight" he'd briefly teased, the lyrics reveal his playful side: "Did you speak to Richard Nixon by that plane in San Berdoo/Tell him he relied on blush too much/Did he smile and say he loves you, was he wearing high heeled shoes/Was his pardon for your felonies a crutch?" Kottke has always had a penchant for silly, lighthearted words, perhaps as a counterbalance to his heavy-handed instrumentation. This also helped make his pairing with the equally childlike Gordon such a natural match.

The set continued with one of his most popular songs, the title track from 1974's Rings, which was followed by "Hear the Wind Howl," originally released on 1971's Mudlark. Never content to simply play his newest or most popular material, he prefers instead to keep the audience guessing, mixing in songs from throughout his 35-year career. He also regales the audience with his unique brand of hilarious storytelling, which veers wildly between stories with specific points or punchlines, and stream of consciousness ramblings. "I travel alone, I work alone, and it shows," he joked.

He closed out the set with "Gewerbegebiet" (German for "industrial park,") a song written recently for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Leave it to Leo Kottke to write a song for four guitarists and then figure out how to play it all by himself. After the encore, the audience offered one last burst of applause before grudgingly acknowledging it was time to leave. Kottke had once again blown everyone away with his amazing guitar work and playful, easygoing nature. Despite his self-effacing jokes about his singing voice, one line from "Rings" remained in my mind: "With a happy tune, anybody can be a singer."

Words by: Paul Kerr
Images by: Todd E. Gaul
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[Published on: 9/5/03]

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