Music News & Reviews

An 'empty head' is a perfect fit for Leo Kottke's shows

Guitarist Leo Kottke performs at the Lyric Theatre on Tuesday night.
Guitarist Leo Kottke performs at the Lyric Theatre on Tuesday night.

The voice on the telephone belongs unmistakably to Leo Kottke. It's a slow-moving baritone that sounds alternately cautious, content and sleepy. None of that, of course, is the case. In conversation, he is open and alert, especially when it comes to explaining the often non-musical practices that have helped make him one of the most celebrated nonclassical guitarists of the past 45 years.

But speaking from a hotel room in Cleveland, Kottke is greeting this Friday afternoon with unassuming hesitation.

How are you, Leo?

"Oh," he offers as a groggy reply, followed by a lengthy pause. "About the same. There are these big power lines leading to some transformer station outside my window. It's a glorious day."Droll? Dismissive? Perhaps. But if you have experienced Kottke in concert, such a remark would almost be expected. Mentored by the great folk-blues guitar stylist John Fahey, Kottke's extraordinary fingerpicking on 6 and 12 string guitar is equal parts technique (with inspirations of folk, jazz, blues and even a fractured pop melody or two fighting for equal time) and instinct. But his performances have always been peppered with wryly hysterical stories that might seem like concert non sequiturs to some. Kottke admits that while his stories and musicianship are separate skills, both have always fed off each other onstage.

"The talking is independent of the music," he said. "But without it, I don't know what to play next. That's why I open my mouth. I couldn't look up for three years when I started playing. I used to get halfway through a set and realize that everything I wanted to play I had already played. But if I talked to the crowd, that doesn't happen. There seems to be some way that talking to them organizes the set for me so that it follows a curve.

"The same thing applies to the guitar itself. Some nights I will have subjects that are familiar to me that will come up. But if I have an empty head, which is the requirement, they take turns, go places and develop in ways I do not expect. The nights that your head just won't go blank are the nights that are difficult. You can get away with them and even have a good time, but there is a little bit of me that hangs around to drive the bus or something. But what is right is when you're not there."

Kottke added that having an "empty head" to trigger musical invention and possibility can never be planned for a performance.

"I suppose if performing sucked, I wouldn't tell you. But it doesn't suck. I don't know why, but there's more to it the longer you do it. It never, ever gets old.

"Emma Thompson did an interview to promote some movie she was in where she said artists are fundamentally inconsolable. That's why they keep doing it. I've heard jazz guys say they play jazz because they didn't want to play the same thing every night. Well, I've been trying to play the same thing every night for decades but it's never happened. Every night is unlike every other night. I think that's one of the reasons you keep going back."

Helping enforce the notion that his music will never be overcome by sameness are plans for two new recording projects. That should result in the guitarist's first albums in nearly a decade. The first continues an ongoing collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon (the two have released two previous records), the other will be a trio session with violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer from the Turtle Island Quartet

"It's always a surprise if somebody calls up and wants to pay you to come and play. But it suits who I have been as far back as my memory will go to be doing this. I can't imagine anything that would fit better. And I will keep doing it until I can't."