FEW CAN HANDLE a guitar the way Leo Kottke does. Listen to any of his 25 solo albums and you may come away thinking few could even learn to pick those strings like the Georgia-born musician. And perhaps there's some sense in that, given that Kottke himself didn't in the strictest sense learn the guitar, as much as he appears to have made it up as he went along -- a self-taught player with no concept whatever that his intricate fingerpicking, perfect rhythm and tireless travel up and down that fretboard sound more like a duo or trio than just one guy with a guitar, even if that signature-model Taylor does have 12 strings. He's like a bumble bee that way: the natural laws are not on his side, and yet he flies on, oblivious to all the fuss. Pick any of his albums -- say his first instrumental, 6 and 12 String Guitar -- as a case in point. It's hard to believe a mere two hands could produce all that sound without the aid (at the very least) of a four-track and about a million takes; yet that classic Kottke album (his 1969 sophomore effort, on John Fahey's Takoma label) was recorded in a mere three hours. So much for theories on wingspan. Unlike the bumble bee, however, this well-traveled troubadour receives a warm welcome everywhere he lands; and this Friday and Saturday, Tucsonans will fill nearly every seat at the Temple of Music and Art to see the spectacle that is Leo Kottke, up close and personal.
Obviously, it's worked out better for him than for most 16-year-olds who pick up a guitar with vague hopes of becoming a legend. It could have gone some other way entirely, as evidenced by his first brush with show biz at the tender age of 8, in a Cheyenne elementary school: "A guy came screaming from out of nowhere, and ran across the stage with a clarinet through his head; I had only one thought in mind: 'I want to be him.' " (That fractured tale, and countless others, graces the liner notes of the recently released One Guitar, No Vocals, a return to the purely instrumental with 12 new and reprised songs that'll leave longtime fans swooning.)
After nearly 30 years in the biz, with his place in history recorded many times over in print (Guitar Player magazine's Hall of Fame, for one), in unforgettable live performances (with the likes of Joe Pass, Paco Pena and Pepe Romero in the early '90s), and in the studio, the seasoned veteran looks back over his success with the wisdom of experience and his 53 years, and says, "I don't have any control over my career. I don't premeditate anything. It just sort of happens."
Kind of like learning to play a 12-string by starting off with the violin, and then switching to trombone....
THIS LATEST ALBUM has the feel of a historic record, no pun intended. The strictly acoustic format is a welcome return after 1997's quirky Standing in My Shoes, a laudable if not entirely likable departure that added multiple tracks of drums, percussion and synthesized rhythm to Kottke's familiar six-string. Fans of the guitarist's acoustic songwriting have nothing to fear on One Guitar, No Vocals, which shows off Kottke's playing at its best to date. The 12 tunes here are so enthusiastic that by the time their creator's done meddling with them, they've become compositions rather than folk songs. Take the album's deceptively simple opener, "Snorkel," which starts off with a simple round of melody, adding a rhythmic line of bass notes, and then a flawless cascade of fingerpicking and chord plucking that makes that 12-string sound more like a piano than a guitar. It's a harbinger of even better things to come (like the nine-and-a-half minute retooling of 1994's "Big Situation," here appropriately retitled "Bigger Situation"). Even "Chamber of Commerce," a dissonant rant that reminds that intricate doesn't always mean pretty, is a balancing dash of salt amidst all the sweet. It grows on you.
One Guitar is thus an exuberant celebration of the instrument -- an instrument long disabused in pop music, which usually calls only one of its strengths into play at a time: rhythm, melody or harmony. But in a style all his own, Kottke embraces each, building arrangements that draw from the complexities of jazz and classical composition without losing the personality, the infectiousness and the broad range of expression that American blues, jazz and folk music have to offer. One Guitar documents one of those rare bridges between the past and the future of traditional music. It's so entertaining, in fact, you won't mourn the absence of Kottke's deadpan humor and distinctive Western baritone. Besides which, you know he won't be able to keep quiet for very long.
As with any instrumentalist worth his salt, Kottke is at heart a storyteller; and so even if you overlook his famously funny liner notes, which offer totally unreliable insight into each song, there's a sense of narrative that carries you along. Call it a soundtrack for real life -- let it play in the background, and whatever you happen to be doing takes on a kind of cinematic quality. It's the kind of music that makes walking to the store seem, oh, like it's going somewhere. But I don't want to saddle an unsuspecting musician with too much of that, especially when in his own words, "music is as non-human as [a] wetsuit. It reminds you of stuff, you dress it in experience, and you introduce it as if it were human..." but in fact it's something else entirely (and if you want to know exactly what, you'll have to get ahold of One Guitar, No Vocals and read the liner notes yourself).
Such a player does well in the studio, and these perfectly produced digital tracks guarantee you won't miss a single note. It's a lovely collection for guitar purists. But live performance is the real Kottke legacy, with that peerless playing coupled by an equally inimitable stage presence. It's almost as much fun to listen to him talk as it is play. If he really believes that about music being inanimate, he's certainly tried to make up for it, touring endlessly over the last 25 years to give it a human face. And nobody but he would say the Kottke catalog, instrumental and lyric alike, is anything but full of life...and life at its finer moments, at that.