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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tendonitis and tinnitus can’t stop veteran guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke from touring

Leo Kottke will take center stage at the Bing Crosby Theater on Friday night.  (Jake Cudek)
By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

It’s evident that Leo Kottke would rather be on a stage than at home. With the exception of the pandemic period, the acoustic guitar virtuoso has been primarily on the road. Since the release of his first album, 1969’s “12 String Blues,” Kottke has often played more than 300 dates a year.

“There’s something magical about stepping on a stage in front of an audience,” Kottke said. “I’ve never gotten tired of it.”

That’s considerable wear and tear, but Kottke continues on after battling tendonitis and tinnitus. Kottke can’t hear as well as he once did, but he doesn’t let that bother him. “I just keep moving on,” Kottke said from Minneapolis. “But I remember what it was like when I could hear well. When I was little, I could follow one grain of sand in a wheel well … with my ears of course. I could hear snowfall.”

Kottke, 77, doesn’t let anything stand in his way. The native of Athens, Georgia – the same town that birthed such quirky and seminal artists as R.E.M., the B-52s and Vic Chestnutt – is an uncompromising original.

Kottke, who will perform Friday at the Bing Crosby Theater, connects via his unconventional finger picking style while easily veering from folk to blues to jazz . Who knows what will comprise Kottke’s set list since the energetic bard has endless songs thanks to his 23 album canon.

“I never know (what will be played), except for the guitar and voice,” Kottke said. “If they haven’t heard me before, there’s a lot of guitar.”

A typical understatement from Kottke, who is a guitar monster who at times sounds like a one-man band. During Kottke’s early days, each song was filled with his vocals, but he realized that his instrumentals were crowd pleasers. “The guitar took me over for a long time,” Kottke said.”It always had my back, so I paid attention.”

Kottke has always been an adventurous player. “Mudlark,” from 1971, is a jaw dropping display of Kottke’s virtuosity. Kottke’s version of the Byrd’s “Eight Miles High” is gorgeous. “Regards from Chuck Pink” (1988) is filled with clever folk and inventive guitar play. And 1994’s aptly titled “Peculiaroso” is a masterpiece. The album, which was produced by Rickie Lee Jones, features Kottke on the 12-string guitar, and the songs are humorous and haunting.

“I like that album, myself,” Kottke said. “Rickie Lee Jones added terror and inspiration. Rickie has musical instincts that can take your head off. Musically speaking; Rickie can take your head off, without a note. She’s one of the great ones. There’s so very much going on there. So just enjoy it or you’ll start writing notes to yourself.”

The amusing Kottke, who is adept at engaging the crowd, has also collaborated with Phish bassist Mike Gordon on three albums, 2002’s “Clone,” 2005’s “Sixty Six Steps” and 2020’s “Noon.”

The latter is a wonderfully idiosyncratic and funky album that features Kottke’s entertaining picking patterns and Gordon’s dexterity.

“It’s friendship,” Kottke said when asked about his relationship with Gordon. “A lot of music happens that way. Also, it’s Mike. He’s completely fluent (with music). That can be a problem because I’m not. But we keep trying to get what we get when we’re face-to-face in a room.”

It’s been all about the guitar for Kottke, but it could have been very different since it wasn’t his first choice of instruments. “I started out with the violin when I was very young,” Kottke said. “I tried the flute, but that didn’t work. I played trombone and then I tried to play piano. I wanted what the piano has but without a piano … but it all worked with the guitar for me.”