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Stringing Along Stories
By B.A. Nilsson

Leo Kottke
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Feb. 17

To say that music and words define Leo Kottke is an understatement. He gives the impression of living in a stream of words and music, constantly flowing through him and shared in snippets with whatever audience he happens to face, as if he were a radio that can be switched on and off but continues its endless programming regardless.

This is exemplified in the stories he tells. They seem to pick up in midstream, almost in midsentence. They tumble us over a rocky course of arcane thought and language, all the more hilarious for the sense of spontaneity that’s conveyed. They end with a laugh but you’re sure there’d be more to tell, more to listen to if Kottke chose to continue speaking.

But he’s been playing his guitar all along, highlighting the tale with strums and tunings and funny little musical quotes. And then a song bursts forth, often highlighted by a gravel-voiced vocal.

If the tune is an instrumental, you can be assured it will be highly rhythmic, demonstrating Kottke’s legendary ability to fingerpick a complicated accompanying figure even as he wreathes hairpin turns in a multilayered melody. His opener at his recent Troy Music Hall concert was the bouncy “William Powell,” an original tune with a Samba feel (he once explained the title only by observing that he first intended to call it “Lana Turner”).

Even a more sentimental-sounding ballad like “Wonderland by Night,” which long ago slithered from Bert Kaempfert to Louis Prima, takes on new life in Kottke’s hands as it gets stripped of its sappiness and yet retains a gentle effectiveness.

Paul Siebel’s “Louise,” a Kottke standard, reveals another approach to the ballad, and it’s pretty raw, as befits the song. Accompanied by bottleneck slides on the 12-string guitar, Kottke’s piercing vocal mixed the lyric’s poetry with casual regret, and the music, almost matter-of-fact in its plangent beauty, echoed that sentiment.

Switching between 6- and 12-string during the 90-minute, intermission-free concert, Kottke started out with enough instrumentals to make us worry that he wasn’t going to sing much, but that proved not to be case.

A setting of Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”—first stanza only, as Kottke believes the rest not only to be hackwork but probably the hackwork of her brother, he explained—was appropriate to the season, while songs like his own “Standing in My Shoes” and “Hear the Wind Howl” displayed Kottke’s own skill as a lyricist.

The former is a ballad of misplaced love, again enhanced with bottleneck backing; the latter—well, kind of more of the same. “And we’ll be back together/When it can’t be the same,” sings one; “You can’t go back, it’s not the same/Things have changed” says the other, two sides of the same depressive coin.

And, to listen to the tales Kottke spins, it not surprising that he should feel that way. He’s one of the funniest storytellers I’ve ever heard, yet through his rambling, intellectually incisive tales there’s a dark undercurrent of despair. Who else could wax eloquently about the recent book The Lobotomist—with a side trip on the preferred layman’s instruments for such things—with such humor? And this while trimming a misbehaving callus with a borrowed emery board!

He then went on to fingerpick, as fleetly as ever, with the emery board squeezed between two fingers of his right hand, an impressive trick that looked (and probably was) entirely accidental.

Kottke has never been much of a hitmaker, although his nearly 30 recordings sell and have sold in respectable numbers. He’ll cover whatever strikes his fancy, and delighted the crowd with an old favorite, “Pamela Brown,” before closing with “Rings,” a number that may have been a bigger hit for Lobo but got a roar of enthusiastic response from the audience in the nearly-full hall—an audience that then leaped to its feet with an ovation as the song and the concert ended.

Effective amplification has been elusive in this hall in the past, but this time the juice was applied with more expertise—and restraint, letting the magical hall itself do more of the work.


 

 

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