The twanging persistence of densely arranged and mesmerizing guitar filled Dimitrious Jazz Alley Nov. 17. Leo Kottke, the renowned solo guitarist entertained the crowd with his distinct finger-style playing, and I was fortunate enough to occupy a seat at the venue that Tuesday, the first of his three nights in town.
After a brief introduction by the host, Kottke strolled onto stage with two acoustic guitars in hand, a six-string and a 12-string. He unceremoniously placed the 12-string on the ground and began plucking at the other, tuning while chatting with the crowd. After realizing he had yet to plug in the instrument, he remarked “my head fell off but my legs still worked, so I got here.” With the instrument prepped, “I’ll play now” he said, and left the idle plucking of preparation to begin his first piece.
Kottke’s play style is fascinating, his dextrous left hand flies about in a blur of knuckly flesh, while the right plucks all six strings independently with a rhythm as reliable as the pulsing of a cesium atom. The man needs no accompaniment, if one were to hear him play without seeing, they might very well swear there’s three men on stage – and when he picks up the twelve string it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine a brigade of guitarists. I can safely say I’ve seen no greater master of the instrument at work.
Much of the time Kottke was onstage he was altering the tuning of his instruments and eliciting laughter from the crowd through varied monologues. He recounted how he fell in love with the sound of voices at a young age listening to the radio, and detailed a time in the navy when he met Paul Mcartney, but could do nothing more than “stand there like a pineapple.”
He explained that after being a performer for some time, “You begin to wonder how it happened in the first place. Because for most people, at least the people that I know largely, and in my own experience, don’t set out to make these things happen, you just want to play. It kind of just starts to happen, because you’re a hog for performing once you find out what it does for your playing, it turns out to be the best way into whatever your instrument is.”
My favorite story of the night was about a seven foot tall, ukelele-wielding 92-year-old man, “an impossibility” in a blue powdered leisure suit with “a little plastic hat up there on his head.” The man had left his nursing home to open a show for Kottke. After the man played several encores, Kottke asked him “is it true they got you out of a nursing home for this?” Having the flu at the time, an IV drip full of muscle relaxant sounded like heaven to Kottke. “He looked at me, way down here, and said ‘this is what I do.’”
Seeing Kottke at the Jazz alley was quite a treat, he is a virtuoso and a great vocalist as well. The man’s playing, singing and storytelling are all reasons to give him your attention. I will certainly take advantage of any other opportunities I have to experience it all again.