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Leo Kottke iTunes Tracks Leo Kottke Official Website

Leo Kottke

Born September 11, 1945, Athens, Georgia, USA, KOTTKE was raised in various locations around the States including Muskogee, Oklahoma. Inspired by country-blues-folk legend MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT, young Leo, aged around 11, took up playing guitar, abandoning his aspirations of becoming a violinist or trombonist. Despite a hearing impediment in one ear, caused by a firecracker accident, and having dropped out of first the Navy Reserves (where he suffered further ear damage), then college, he developed his unique 12-string finger-picking style while hitchhiking around the country.
Eventually working at the Scholar coffee house in Minneapolis, KOTTKE cut his first LP there, 12-STRING BLUES (1969) {*5}, under the auspices of the bar’s owner. Not particularly ground-breaking, the instrumental record comprised 11 originals (including `Circle ‘Round The Sun’ and `Sail Away Ladies’) plus two covers, PETE SEEGER’s `Living In The Country’ and Sam McGee’s `Last Steam Engine Train’.
The following one-off long-player, 6- & 12-STRING GUITAR (1969) {*8}, for JOHN FAHEY’s Takoma label, displayed richer, more textured studio dexterity, his virtuoso unrivalled via classics like `Vaseline Machine Gun’, `The Sailor’s Grave On The Prairie’ (was RY COODER listening?), `Busted Bicycle’, `Ojo’, `Coolidge Rising’, and two classicals from Johann Sebastian Bach: `Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring’ and `Jack Fig’.
With eight of its eleven titles having already been available from his live debut, the hard-to-obtain CIRCLE ‘ROUND THE SUN (1970) {*5} was hardly worth an appearance, although through it the acoustic maestro secured a deal with Capitol Records, via manager Denny Bruce (a former ZAPPA cohort) who co-scribed `Standing In My Shoes’ for his next set.
KOTTKE’s major label debut, MUDLARK (1971) {*8}, was pored over by guitar enthusiasts and more discerning critics who excused his limited vocal ability on a handful of his vocal despatches, the beginnings of a cult following firmly in place. His first entry into the US Top 200 (peaking at 168), the set – with four pieces recorded in Nashville with studio musicians – expanded the man’s clout by way of gems like `June Bug’, `Poor Boy’ (penned w/ BUKKA WHITE), `Monkey Lust’ (penned w/ KIM FOWLEY), the traditional `Cripple Creek’, a cover of The BYRDS’ `Eight Miles High’, another Bach track `Bourree’ and Vaseline follow-up, `Machine No.2’.
For 1972’s GREENHOUSE {*7}, KOTTKE took a bit of a gamble, with five out of the eleven tracks actual songs, the best of the bunch being Al Gaynor’s death-of-HENDRIX homage, `Tiny Island’, `The Spanish Entomologist’ (interpolating Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Jambalaya), `From The Cradle To The Grave’ (penned w/ Paul Nagle) and PAUL SIEBEL’s `Louise’. Worth admission price alone are the instrumentals, `Lost John’, `Bean Time’, the bluegrass-fuelled `Owls’, and two inspired by FAHEY, `In Christ There Is No East Or West’ and a re-tread of `Last Steam Engine Train’.
Just hovering outside the Top 100 (his last set had peaked at 127 incidentally), MY FEET ARE SMILING (1973) {*7}, was recorded live at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre, a hypnotic set that saw him performing solo on recent nuggets (the Bach excerpts in medley form) and a few newbie instrumentals like `Blue Dot’ and `Egg Tooth’.
KOTTKE’s unique style and virtuosity were becoming increasingly popular; ICE WATER (1974) {*6} was the first of two sets that reached Top 75 status. With more than a nod to country rather than folk, Leo’s COHEN-esque tones registered on half a dozen dirges including Tom T. Hall’s `Pamela Brown’, Cole Porter/Jules Shear’s `All Through The Night’, Ron Elliott’s `You Tell Me Why’, Don Robertson’s `Born To Be With You’, all not of high standard; that prize would go to `Tilt Billings And The Student Prince’ and the instrumental `A Good Egg’.
Cracking the Top 50 (his only set to do so) on the instrumental DREAMS AND ALL THAT STUFF (1974) {*6}, KOTTKE was accompanied by dobro to piano and synths on at least three jewels here: `Mona Ray’, `Twilight Property’ and `Taking A Sandwich To A Feast’, while his renditions of Gimbel & Lauber’s `Why Ask Why?’, plus trad cues `Bill Cheatham’ and a medley of `San Antonio Rose’ and `America, The Beautiful’ verged on nostalgic and sentimental.
Disappointing by his tall standards (and only reaching No.114), Leo’s last album for Capitol, CHEWING PINE (1975) {*4}, was a blatant attempt by the company to sell him (out) as a mainstream/countrified singer who just happened to play excellent guitar; examples included his reading of MARTY ROBBINS’ `Don’t You Think’, Norman Petty’s `Wheels’ and PROCOL HARUM’s `Power Failure’. Of his fingerpicking instrumentals only `The Scarlatti Rip-Off’ and `Can’t Quite Put It Into Words’ were essential listening.
His subsequent Chrysalis Records output, LEO KOTTKE (1977) {*6}, BURNT LIPS (1978) {*6} and BALANCE (1979) {*6}, were decidedly out-of-step for the new-wave times, although they had their instrumental high spots (`Airproofing’ probably the inspiration for ERIC CLAPTON’s `Lay Down Sally]), while there were the odd covers from Bob Morris (`Buckaroo’), JODY REYNOLDS (`Endless Sleep’), Jack Scott (`Cool Water’), Kevin Blackie Farrell (`Sonora’s Death Row’), JEFFERSON AIRPLANE (`Embryonic Journey’) and BUDDY HOLLY (`Learning The Game’).
1980’s LIVE IN EUROPE {*6} had its moments, like `Open Country Joy: Theme And Adhesions’, while 1981’s totally instrumental GUITAR MUSIC {*6} found Leo finding room at the KOTTKE inn for two COODER interpretations (`Available Space’ and `Perforated Sleep’), that Bob Nolan nugget in full `Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, the EVERLY BROTHERS timepiece `All I Have To Do Is Dream’ and Santo & Johnny’s `Sleep Walk’; his final set for Chrysalis, TIME STEP (1983) {*7}, was another AOC cocktail of KOTTKE originals, saddled astride his contemporary C&W pluckings of KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s `Here Comes That Rainbow Again’, Alex Harvey’s `Rings’, Bill Anderson’s `Saginaw, Michigan’, A.L. Owens & Sanger D. Shafer’s `I’ll Break Out Again Tonight’ and Dehr-Gilkyson-Miller’s `Memories Are Made Of This’ – somehow this one worked better, although on a personal level it was nothing really to write home about.
With sales taking a bit of a dip, KOTTKE’s relatively prolific recording schedule continued apace after he signed to Private Music (run by Arista). Amongst his best work was 1986’s A SHOUT TOWARD NOON {*7}, which found particular favour with loyal acolytes and critics alike, the solitary cover stemming from DUANE ALLMAN’s `Little Martha’. Returning the emphasis back to rootsy folk-blues, with a touch of new-age jazz, KOTTKE became FAHEY again through mind-blowing atmospherics like `Four Four North’, `Ice Field’ and `First To Go’.
REGARDS FROM CHUCK PINK (1988) {*7}, MY FATHER’S FACE (1989) {*6}, THAT’S WHAT (1990) {*6} and GREAT BIG BOY (1991) {*7} continued his relentless sojourn in musical utopia, the latter featuring songs again (JOHNNY CASH’s `I Still Miss Someone’ for one) and guest spots from Margo Timmins (of COWBOY JUNKIES) and LYLE LOVETT; the second-but-last effort saw readings of Carla Bley’s `Jesus Maria’ and Willard O. Peterson’s `Mid-Air’.
1994’s PECULIAROSO {*6} saw production work from RICKIE LEE JONES and a few reverent takes of golden oldies, `Wonderland By Night’, `Twilight Time’, `The Room At The Top Of The Stairs’ and the SUTHERLAND BROTHERS’ `Arms Of Mary’; if you missed these versions, all but the former appeared on LEO KOTTKE’s LIVE (1995) {*6}, alongside the partly comical `Roy Autry’ and `Combat’.
Having turned fifty in 1995, KOTTKE was a tad too sentimental and endearing for some musos, but producer David Z (ex-PRINCE) tried to instil a sense of groove and rhythm to his next set, STANDING IN MY SHOES (1997) {*6}. Funktifying the great `Vaseline Machine Gun’ was probably not its best 3 minutes, but alongside trad cues `Corrina, Corrina’ (with KOTTKE on vox) and `Cripple Creek’, not forgetting FLEETWOOD MAC’s `World Turning’, the set was pleasant enough.
The self-explanatory ONE GUITAR, NO VOCALS (1999) {*6} harked back to halcyon instrumental days of old, Leo now producing intimate and complex dirges in a graceful manner; tracks such as `Snorkel’, `Retrograde’ and `Blimp’ – prime KOTTKE.
Uniting on the first of two sets with PHISH’s Mike Gordon (on bass), CLONE (2002) {*7}, was a slight departure for LK, the crafty but exciting combination of young and old coming up trumps on their own individual cues (check out Gordon’s title track and KOTTKE’s `Middle Of The Road’), alongside renditions of Robert “Frizz” Fuller’s `From Pizza Towers To Defeat’ and Casey Anderson’s `I Am A Lonesome Fugitive’. KOTTKE returned the favour on 2005’s equally-billed SIXTY SIX STEPS {*6}, a record that saw Leo bring to the table re-treads of `Living In The Country’ and `Rings’, new originals `From Spink To Correctionville’, `Cherry County’ and `Balloon’. What’s interesting from a covers prospective was their primeval takes of PETER GREEN’s `Oh Well’ and AEROSMITH’s `Sweet Emotion’.
Squeezed somewhere in between the Gordon collaborations was KOTTKE’s last solo effort to date, TRY AND STOP ME (2004) {*6}, another vehicle for his finger-picking goodness, characteristic in the fact that it comprised several fresh originals (`Stolen’ is trademark KOTTKE), the “odd” team-up (with LOS LOBOS on the WEAVERS’ `The Banks Of Marble’) and nostalgic covers (Horton Vaughn’s `Mockingbird Hill’ and Bley’s `Jesus Maria’ again!). As this book goes to print, it can’t be long now until KOTTKE delivers his long-awaited comeback set.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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