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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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