I first met Leo Kottke in the fall of 1969. It was on my first night of college at St. Cloud State University, and Leo was playing at the Ratskeller Coffeehouse, located in the basement of the Atwood Student Union. It was a dark cellar with a dozen or so hardwood square tables and chairs. At the end of the evening, the Ratskeller was empty save Leo and I. Not by intention. I just got lucky.
A few months later Leo released Armadillo, a groundbreaking recording recorded live at the Scholar Coffeehouse in Minneapolis. The rest is, as they say, history.
Leo is more than a one-man band. Leo is a one-man orchestra. His guitar work on 12 and 6 string guitars is somewhere between the slow, barbiturate sound of John Fahey, the swift flat-picking of Doc Watson, and the electronic stealth of Jimi Hendrix gone acoustic. His singing voice is another unique mix—between the soft baritone of Dean Martin and (as Leo puts it) “geese farts.” But it’s Leo’s slow, drawn out humor that pulls it all together in a live performance. His storytelling is random mix between the Smothers Brothers, Garrison Keillor, and Samuel Clemens. There’s always a storyline woven throughout his shows. You don’t know where Leo’s heading until the night is over and even then you’re not entirely sure where the story went, but it was a journey worth taking.
Back in the ’80s a mutual friend of ours, bassist Billy (Williard) Peterson, produced several of my recordings for Flying Fish Records (now distributed by Rounder Records). Billy brought Leo into play a couple of my tunes: Catfish Rag (Troubadour CD) and Mad About The Way Things Are (Run For Freedom/Sweet Thunder CD). The Leo you see on stage is the same Leo you meet off stage. Vulnerable and genuine with a lonely rye wit.
Forty years after first hearing Leo that night at the Rathskellar, my wife and I are in Martha’s Vineyard at a small nightclub called Nectar’s near the airport, watching Leo perform. ( www.nectarsmv.com) The show isn’t listed on his tour schedule, which is crammed with concerts across the country. www.leokottke.com) As far as I can tell, he’s traveling alone.
When my wife and I arrived earlier at Nectar’s Leo was doing sound check. Afterward he sat down with us for a chat. I shared the story of hearing him for the first time at the Ratskeller. Leo said, “I remember that. They hired me to play two nights for fifty dollars. When I got done playing on the second night they handed me a twenty-five dollar check. I told them I was supposed to get paid fifty dollars. The guy in charge of the Ratskeller quickly replied, ‘Now you’re not.’ I guess he didn’t think I was worth it. And now 40 years later I’m still making a living at this.”
I asked Leo if it would be all right if I took a photograph of him during his performance. He chuckled. “As long as you don’t use a flash. I just can’t get this one guy out of my head that used a flash at one of my concerts years back. In the middle of my show I could feel the eyes of someone staring me down from the end of my guitar neck somewhere down by the tuners. I couldn’t help but look… and sure enough there he was, holding an old antique camera with foursquare cubed flash bulbs on top of it. He was smirking. I stopped and smiled, waiting for him to take the picture, but he didn’t. So I moved my guitar neck a few inches to the right and there he was doing it again. I stopped and posed for another picture, but he didn’t take it. He just went away. I thought that was sure odd. Then toward the end of my concert I heard the sound of someone talking to the right of me. I was lost in a song. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought it was possibly the management or something. So I stopped and looked over and there he was with that antique camera with foursquare cube flash bulbs. This time he flashed the picture and it blinded me. I didn’t think it was funny, but the audience all started laughing. Then he sat himself down in the middle of the auditorium toward the front row. Halfway through my last song he stood up and walked right out down the middle aisle. I never saw him again.”
We were concerned about the turnout for the concert, since half the folks on the island had fled in the wake of an impending hurricane that was suppose to have hit on the previous day. It never materialized, but that didn’t stop a torrential rain from poring down nonstop for over 24 hours.
This didn’t seem to bother Leo. He was in top form that night, sitting on a chair in the middle of a dark stage before an audience of a few hundred. After his first song Leo jokingly said, “I’m damp. I’ve never been so damp in my whole life.” He then went right into his second instrumental. When the song was over, Leo braced his guitar on his lap. “I’m feeling some remorse about what I said. I have been damper than I am right now. All I was trying to say is that I’m really damp.” And then off he went into the next song.
Leo played a two-hour set with no breaks held together by a meandering storyline and accentuated by rapid fire guitar playing that occasionally edged towards the gypsy sounds of Django Reinhart and the melancholy of sultry torch songs with an eastern European feel.
It was as if I blinked and the night was over. Leo simply stood up, a guitar in both hands, took a bow, and walked off stage. The audience gave him an immediate standing ovation. He walked back out with one guitar, sat down, and said, “I’ve never been so damp.” Then he launched into the encore.
Like well-aged wine stored in an oaken barrel Leo Kottke just keeps getting better. Thank you Leo.