July 01, 1994

Digital Sound

Filed under: Archive,Music

Leo Kottke
Norwood Town Hall

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It is one of the ironies of modern times that the music that made a heap of money for William Ackerman and became known generically as Wyndham Hill, was pretty much invented by Leo Kottke. Not that Ackerman’s own watery tinkerings and the no-sudden-loud-noises ambient style of his record label bear comparison with the vigorous driving twelve string rhythms that are the Kottke hallmark.

It also has to be said that Kottke’s music, style and personality are just too danged idiosyncratic to accommodate the smooth niche marketting of Wyndham Hill. Ever since his debut album for Takoma appeared about twenty-five years ago, Kottke has been producing records that don’t quite fit the demographics. There’s the guitar sound, not quite blues or folk or raga. And the vocals, that even the singer himself compared to a dying frog, or was it a raccoon in extremis. Maybe it’s all the fault of Athens, Georgia, home of that other weirdo lyricist
– Michael Stipe of REM.

If you are wondering what Leo Kottke is up to these days, the answer is- much good. He has reputedly re-worked his playing techniques after developing repetition injuries (Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick was similarly forced back to the soundboard to re-jig) and has just finished a national tour promoting his newest album, Peculiaroso. Produced by Rickie Lee Jones, who is also touring soon, it is as fine as any he has released.

In performance Kottke is both brilliant and dotty. It’s no accident that he was a regular on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion because he is a match for Keillor in the shaggy dog narrative department. After opening with a flawless version of the jaunty instrumental Peg Leg and a spacious revival of the Platters’ hit Twilight Time, both from the new album, Kottke whimsically pondered about the protocols of talking to the audience at the beginning of a concert. Relaxed, and gently comic, he plays the rube while making Noam Chomsky jokes.

Then he picks up his 12 string to play fingerbusters that sound like three Leadbellys and John Bonham. The voicebox is invoked for the Randall Hylton tune, Room at the Top of the Stairs, a ragtime country crooner from Peculiaroso. Even better was his classic reading of the Byrds’s Eight Miles High, the fluid, wistful playing matching his burred vocals in elegiac recollection of higher times.

Kottke summons pictures of small-time USA, kids living out of sync, mischief in the bible-belt. His daffy stories have the same curdled satire that lurks in Keillor’s not quite benign memoirs. His new song, Parade, captures it too. Like a kind of West Texas Randy Newman with a refrain that hints of Joni Mitchell’s Tin Angel.

One thing you can do when you watch Kottke perform live is count his fingers. He keeps them tucked under so you can’t be sure, but I’d guess eleven on the left hand and thirteen on the right. He seems to sprout more whenever he reaches for the 12-string and lose a couple for the bottleneck tunes which, by the way, are rivalled only by Ry Cooder.

Kottke played sublimely and nattered amiably for ninety minutes. He told a lovely story of Joe Pass being serenaded by the Georgian Film Actors at the 1992 Adelaide Festival and dedicated his concert to his memory. For an encore he played one more of his mighty fingerplunkers- Vaseline Machine Gun, or was it Jack Fig ? Or that bicycle thing. It doesn’t matter. From the first album to the peculiar present, for Leo Kottke that circle remains unbroken.

The Adelaide Review, No. 129, July, 1994, p.28

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