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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Leo Kottke's artistic honesty on display at City Winery

Leo Kottke performs "Living in the Country" at City Winery

None other than Jimmy Vivino, the Conan show’s bandleader and one of this era’s most versatile guitarists, was extolling the virtues of Leo Kottke prior to his show last Thursday night (Oct. 11) at City Winery.

“He’s completely honest,” said Vivino, noting how what’s happening in Kottke’s head in any given moment manifests in his fingers—and often vice versa. “That’s why I call what he does blues.”

Kottke’s show bore out Vivino’s observations on both counts—as the heavily folk/country blues-influenced guitarist himself would soon demonstrate. After limbering up with the spritely instrumental “Living in the Country” (he had arrived at the venue by car just minutes earlier due to an earlier flight cancellation), he digressed into the popularity (“though not so much at City Winery”) of Lysol as a drink: “It’s one of the highest in alcohol content. If you’re cost-conscious, you can really demolish yourself for peanuts!”

File that under “Unexpected things learned at a Leo Kottke concert,” and do note that such behavior was not unheard of among blues pioneers of a century ago. But as is also typical of a Leo Kottke concert, he then proceeded to confirm another Vivino observation: A Kottke tune can start in one place and end up in another, same with his stories—which are more often than not embedded into said tune.

“I introduced a tune a minute ago--but didn’t play it!” Kottke confessed after performing another instrumental (“Four Cents”), though it’s highly unlikely that anyone felt cheated, but if anyone did, he eventually returned to it—though not before again going off on a tangent, this time about being lost in thought while on stage.

“It’s never a good thing while you’re up here,” Kottke revealed. “I start thinking, ‘What did I have for breakfast? Did I have breakfast?’ And that’s it--you’re screwed!”

Be that as it may, he did a fine job on his vocal song “Julie’s House,” and after Bert Kaempfert’s 1961 instrumental chart-topper “Wonderland by Night,” discoursed at some length about tubas. Turns out, Kottke said, that back in high school (“a soupcon of juvenile delinquency where corporal punishment was legal and encouraged”) the lowly tuba was the marching band’s “punishment instrument,” and while he himself played trombone, the band’s conductor, many years later, said he was glad Kottke discovered the guitar.

Speaking of guitar, Kottke brought along a new one, a custom built model without a cutaway, which he now wished he had ordered since he predicted—correctly—that on one tricky instrumental he’d have trouble reaching for a high note or two that would have been easy had it had that cutaway. But he managed to cover the distance anyway before looking down at his hands prior to performing Lobo’s 1974 hit “Rings” and noting regretfully that sometimes “they have their own ideas.”

“Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re just setting you up—especially this one!” he continued, glaring balefully at his right hand.

“Despite all the things we have in common,” he added, “Justin Bieber would never tell you anything like this.”



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