Son of Blind Joe Death
Few career arcs break the way Leo Kottke's did--starting out as a so-folk-he's-jazz prodigy on 6 and 12 String Guitar, his definitive (and once ubiquitous, though now out of print) 1970 Takoma release. Kottke was at first an instrumentalist, his fingers seemingly doing eight things at once as he churned out a clockwork whirring that was seductive not only for its rhythms, but its sheer virtuosity. He was the successor to the likes of John Fahey, who attacked folk structures with an intensity that turned the music into a higher form. Kottke continued Fahey's work, elevating traditional American styles into art, but art that still rang with the past.
In person, Kottke was striking and a bit unsettling. At a time when most performers went to lengths to look like complete freaks, he looked ordinary to the extreme, like an accountant or your nice coworker. He wasn't entirely comfortable on stage, either; when making small talk, he could sound like the neighbor boy commonly described as "too smart for his own good," kind of weird and out of the loop. To then watch him fall into a song with an amazingly articulated wave of notes, concentrating to the point of trance, was almost spooky. Doomed to have his early description of his voice as "geese farts on a muggy day" inserted into the story at this point for all eternity, Kottke nonetheless began singing more through the '70s; songs with lyrics began to pop up more and more often, revealing a character that few would've suspected lurked behind the virtuoso--a bemused but resigned square peg full of folkloric dread and morbidity, with a certain undercurrent of impending meltdown. Kottke's new songs implied a world where the sky wasn't quite the same color as ours, and his singing--although improving--backed that up, full of odd stops and starts and unexpected notes.
The sea-change is marked with 1978's Burnt Lips, an album full of short songs with words that found Kottke adding a wider range of influences; his technical wizardry was subsumed, made to serve the songwriting. Moody and off-kilter, the songs--"Sand Street," "Everybody Lies," "Frank Forgets"--follow strange patterns and paths; the words are full of distance and disappointment, and at times Kottke moans as if he'd just had dental surgery. It's a perfect summation of alienation and emptiness, merciless wide-open space that means nothing but can imply everything. After Burnt Lips--although the prodigy is never completely absent from the music--the singer-songwriter persona has been in charge; even his later instrumental works seem beamed in from that sensibility.
Since then, he has polished and refined his delivery, but even though there is almost always a sly spark of humor lurking in his work, the mood it delivers remains essentially the same, beautiful but slightly skewed and subtly sad. He's released many variations on his theme, but the excellent Guitar Music of 1981, 1986's instrumental Shout Towards Noon, and Peculiaroso (1995) stand out. The intimacy of the Caravan makes this show particularly attractive, for to get a good look at Kottke's fingers as he plays can be like watching a time-lapse movie of a cathedral being built.
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Leo Kottke plays at Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams on Thursday, March 20.