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Guitarist Mesmerizes Leo Kottke Captures Audience With Highly Syncopated, Beautifully Structured Instrumental Pieces

Imagine you are on a camping trip, and this guy named Leo Kottke comes over to visit your campfire.

He sees your guitar and asks if he can play it. You say sure, and you sit back, expecting to hear “Stewball,” or maybe “On Top of Old Smokey.”

Then the woods explode with sound. Sixteenth-notes are rattling off the canyon walls like gunfire. Harmonics are soaring into the tree-tops. This can’t be one man and an acoustic guitar - it’s got to be Segovia, Doc Watson and the entire Philadelphia Orchestra all rolled into one.

I swear, that’s the kind of virtuoso impact Leo Kottke has when he plays.

He was absolutely mesmerizing in his hour-plus set Friday night at The Met. He has been at the pinnacle of finger-picked guitar since the early 1970s, and since then, the guy has done nothing but get better.

The highlights of his show were, as always, his highly syncopated, beautifully structured instrumental pieces. He rarely introduced his tunes by name, so it’s hard to know exactly which great tune was following which great tune. But he did a dizzying version of “Cripple Creek,” a tune distinguished by plenty of harmonics (those bell-like chiming noises). His final encore tune was also an exhilarating blast of machine-gun picking.

His slide playing, on his custom 12-string, was even better. If bluegrass is folk music on overdrive, then Kottke’s slide work is blues on turbo-speed.

Kottke is also a great storyteller. You’ve got to love a guy who can introduce a song with these words: “Helga and I are going to go out and milk a goat.”

I also found myself greatly enjoying his vocals. He has a deep, expressive voice, and his songwriting is as interesting and quirky as anything by David Byrne or Lyle Lovett. The best example was “Jack Gets Up.”

All of this great music came in an atmosphere that was strange, to say the least. On one hand, there were a number of well-dressed patrons of the Inland Northwest Zoological Society in the audience. On the other hand, there were the Hell’s Angels.

A number of Angels were there in their colors, apparently to see the opening act J.W. Everitt, who was also the show’s organizer. Everitt is a moderately talented guitarist who subjected the crowd to his name-dropping and his lounge music, complete with recorded backing tracks.

Two Harley-Davidsons decorated the stage, an odd choice for the button-downed Kottke and his acoustic music. The low point came when Everitt stopped the show in a pathetic attempt to auction off some motorcycle chaps.

That was merely odd; more serious was the statement by Kottke that he did not realize he was playing a benefit. He made a joke out of it by saying he has made a practice of not playing benefits ever since he played one for the “Golfing Poor of Aspen.”

And he said he had no quarrel with this cause, to raise money for the new Cedar Mountain Zoological Park at Silverwood.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Leo Kottke Friday, Feb. 2, at The Met

This sidebar appeared with the story: Leo Kottke Friday, Feb. 2, at The Met