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
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
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
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