Grandpa in this case refers to the kind of guitar player Leo Kottke is – playing songs on an acoustic guitar while stopping to tell long, drawn out stories as he gets the tuning just right. He could easily be pictured sitting on the edge of a porch telling folk tales while strumming his guitar, just as he performed his 90 minute set this past Friday in the smaller and much more intimate Swyer Theater at The Egg, just a floor below the main room many are familiar with.
I only learned of Leo Kottke in 2003 when he put out Clone with Mike Gordon, the bassist from Phish. The two produced an incredible album that had me hooked on the mysterious guitarist, but it took another 10 years before I would see him in a solo live performance. Amid a mostly older crowd, Kottke’s trance-inducing plucking of his 12 string guitar was a treat for the ears. His playing is that of a soundtrack to a cross country train ride, as the engine chugs along the tracks, scenery flying by and curves on the tracks shift the weight of the song from one side to another. The melody produced by the guitar was unlike any I had heard, rivaling even the greatest pluckers.
Playing 15 or so songs over the course of the night, the setlist that was only found inside the mind of Leo. Comprised of ballads and love songs, instrumentals of both a progressive and orchestral nature, Kottke could have tackled classical numbers in the style of Bela Fleck and given a performance that would be of nearly the same caliber.
But what made the evening complete were the stories that Kottke told as he tuned his guitar in between songs. Speaking in a gravely, baritone voice, he shared anecdotes from the road, the origin of songs, musicians he has listened to and interacted with, plus just some random off-topic ramblings that kept the audience laughing in between focusing intently on Leo performing at centerstage. These moments were Zappa-esque, in terms of the banter that occurred between the beats of the music, paced conversation with a unique soundtrack each time. Of note was when Leo spoke of Robert Bartow, whom he was listening to backstage, a performer of 18th century Baroque German lute music. How this influenced his set is a mystery to everyone, but surely, the master brought in a variety of influences in the magical 100 minutes at The Egg this evening.