Updated: May 30, 2019
May 16 at One Longfellow Square in Portland, ME
Image from onelongfellowsquare.com
“Uh…” I never thought of the word, more of a sound really, as particularly poignant or the sign of an articulate speaker. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is an utterance of brilliance, an indication of true genius and, by way of that conclusion, I’ve stumbled upon the realization that that must mean there is some amount of genius somewhere in all of us. But I digress. “Uh…”, the sound more than the word, was the first pronounced noise to emanate from the stage once Leo Kottke took his seat behind the microphone, six-string guitar in hand at One Longfellow Square this past Thursday.
Starting the show by playing into his own shortcomings as an orator served a dual purpose, the first being that his explanation of the utterances of “Uh” and “Well”, when he wanted to use some variety, demonstrated coherence in itself as well as self-realization and a hilariously dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. The second point, however, was that it alluded to the man’s true voice, his purest means of communication, as being the music. When he struggles to get the words out in a conversation, or jumbles them to the point that they obscure the meaning of his point, the music speaks for him. This is most likely me reading much too far into the idiosyncrasies of conversing with the audience, but in retrospect it seems like an act, albeit a genuine one, of a performer performing even when it seems as though they are not. Kottke may be known in part for his storytelling and sense of humor, but he is renowned for his musical ability and that is what I went to see.
I found my way to his show by the recommendation of my dad who all but said, “When Leo Kottke comes around, you go see him. It’s just what you do.” This is a sentiment I understand very well, similarly urging attendance to family and friends at shows put on by my favorite bands. Based on his endorsement, I was prepared to observe some genuine guitar virtuosity, up close and personal at the intimate venue in Portland. And that is exactly what I witnessed. Mixing in songs throughout the set that featured lyrics and vocals, the performance was carried by instrumental pieces, among them being the country/folk-inspired “Last Steam Engine Train.” Using a descending progression, the song highlighted Kottke’s fingerpicking ability with tasteful work on the higher strings and was anchored by an alternating bass note symbolic of a locomotive steadily rolling down the tracks. The emblematic part of the feel-good piece, also the reason I was able to find it on YouTube and recognize it after the show, was the slide into a bend of the higher strings that starts the progression.
Kottke wowed the third-night sold out crowd with similar showcases of his instrumental prowess, and sense of humor amidst his endless well of stories, occasionally picking up his twelve-string guitar and placing a glass slide on his right pinky finger for songs like “Vaseline Machine Gun”. I was in awe as I observed the dexterity with which Kottke’s hands maneuverd the strings and traversed the fretboard in a feeble attempt to grasp just how he was able to play what he was playing. I still don’t know. As I then directed my gaze around the room at the crowd, I was struck with the unsurprising realization that I was easily the youngest person in attendance. But further, I was able to understand why I was there and thoroughly enjoying myself, pure musical talent aside. As an example, I would not have had nearly as good a time, or a good time at all, at an opera regardless of the talent behind those booming voices. Along with the instrumental stylings highlighted in “Vaseline Machine Gun” were the heartbreakingly touching lyrics of “Tiny Island”, in which Kottke sings, “Yesterday’s gone, I don’t know where I come from| Wonder where I’m going.” Kottke’s voice, as I told my dad when asked after the show, was good for being 73 years old but it was low and deep without much range, as he humorously admitted in what I had come to learn was his signature crowd banter. His guitar playing was another story, being damned good for being damned good, regardless of age. But those lyrics spoke to me, probably because I am away from the place that I come from, but also because I interpreted them as an application to Leo. Yesterday is indeed gone, the songs have been sung and his well-worn voice shows the signs of the passage of time. But his style has influenced so many artists even if they do not realize it and that was never more clear to me than when he picked up that twelve-string and put on that slide as I have seen my favorite guitarist, John Butler, do countless times on stage. Yesterday is indeed gone, but the music and the man behind it continue to live on.