For more than a quarter of a century, guitarist extraordinaire Leo Kottke has made a point of playing a so-called “holiday” concert in the Twin Cities on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition—a longer tradition than the Holidazzle Parade, at any rate—so one would expect more of a sense of occasion. A Thanksgiving story, maybe, or a droll recollection from a childhood Christmas in Minnesota? How about a tune relating to the holidays? An offhand remark about winter? A syllable or two about anything that happens in the last two months of the year?
Not when Kottke’s in town. All of the above would make logical sense, of course, but that’s the problem. This is a Leo Kottke tradition, after all, so he does it his way. Last night at the State Theatre, the closest Kottke got to acknowledging the season was a story about Halloween.
But that’s OK, because tradition demands that a Leo Kottke concert make as little sense as possible. What he does with a guitar has always been mystifying, and his humorous patter between songs has always been full of charmingly ridiculous non-sequiters, as if he’s still a little buzzed from the 1960s. But in concert, the two somehow fit together so well that Kottke fan sites have taken to publishing entire transcripts from concerts rather than simple set lists. The tunes themselves are fun to listen to, but it’s the tales in between that hold them together. Sort of. (Leo Kottke–brand epoxy would not work very well.)
Last night’s show began fairly typically, with Kottke looking like he just woke up from a nap, then playing a couple of instrumentals to warm his fingers up and get used to the idea that 2,000 people were watching. The first words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry, I’ve been trying to figure out how not to play this next song, and I have lost.” Then he launched into “Louise,” and followed it with a story about Al Franken wanting him to play “Julie’s House,” a tale in which Kottke explains to Franken that he doesn’t play that song anymore because it hurts his fingers—after which, of course, Kottke played “Julie’s House.”
In between anecdotes about an eighty-three-year-old golf-course maintenance man and moonshine-maker named “The Prosecutor,” a story about John Fahey getting beat up by a bunch of college wrestlers in Dinkytown, and one about how Doc Watson destroyed his confidence so badly that he has never been able to tune his low “E” string properly, Kottke played beautifully, trading off between six- and twelve-string guitars, as he always does.
For us old-timers, he threw in “Living in the Country,” and “Little Martha” amid a grab-bag of other instrumentals from throughout his career. He seemed to be in a singing mood too, for he crooned “Corrina, Corrina” and “Tony and Mario” as well. Like an old guitar, Kottke’s voice has deepened and mellowed, and these days he even sings in key most of the time. And if you’ve ever heard the man sing, you know that’s a gift in itself.