Arizona Republic (January 21, 1999)

Welcome Back, Kottke
Master Guitarist Always a Treat for True Music Lovers

by Doug Carroll

     "Geese farts on a muggy day" is the way Leo Kottke once described his own singing voice, and he admits that probably was an ill-advised attempt to say he is first and foremost an instrumentalist.

     "It"s haunted me," says Kottke, no stranger to strange ways of saying things. "I can be too cute for my own good sometimes. It wasn"t entirely wrong. But I should have just said there are songs I was not cut out to sing."

     No one will ever confuse Kottke"s guitar playing with a honking case of flatulence, however. He is a master of both the six- and 12-string Taylor, and it"s not an exaggeration to say that guitars have been his life.

     "I knew from the first chord I played that I belonged to the guitar," says Kottke, 53, whose style encompasses an assortment of influences but is usually summed up as folk. "It was my religious experience. It changed my life, and it gave me a life.

     "I knew the first day that I'd spend my life doing it. I had no idea what I'd be doing for a living, but I knew I'd be playing the guitar. It solved all my questions. All I had to do was sit and play."

     That"s what he will do Saturday in Scottsdale, in a set that will be "85 to 90 percent" instrumentals.

     Kottke"s most recent album for the Private Music label, last year"s Standing in My Shoes, was the result of a collaboration with David Z, a fellow Minneapolis musician.

     David Z is credited with playing a role in the development of Prince and the "Minneapolis sound," and the Shoes album has a decidedly rhythmic bent. While it was being recorded in Nashville, Kottke recruited his pal Chet Atkins to play the lead on the song Twice.

     Kottke and Atkins go way back - sort of.

     "My first record, around 1969, got a lot of airplay," Kottke recalls, "and Chet sent an emissary who said that he wanted to meet me. I told the guy to get lost, but it turned out he was for real. So I didn"t meet him till 10 years ago or less.

     "By accident, we hit it off. You either get along with Chet or he just leaves. He doesn"t put up with people."

     Another thrill for Kottke was a chance meeting with Dizzy Gillespie, the late jazz trumpeter, in Italy. Gillespie was loading his band"s gear and paused to chat for a few minutes.

     "Of all the things I could have asked him, we talked about sleep," Kottke says. "He was a virtuoso of the catnap."

     Kottke, who claims "It"s more fun to play onstage now than it was when it was new," says one of the things keeping him going is an ever-changing audience.

     "There"s a long-term group (of fans), but I wouldn"t be here if that"s all I had," he says. "It happens in waves: Every few years you don"t see new people, then every few you do. A lot of people now are hearing me for the first time. . . . I commonly hear "What are all these old people doing here?" and also "You know, you"ve got a lot of kids here."

     "A lot of tastes collide. You"ve got people sitting next to each other who otherwise would have absolutely nothing to say to each other. It"s probably a marketer"s nightmare."

     What"s left for him to accomplish in a career that has spanned 25 albums? Plenty, says Kottke, who considers himself primarily a songwriter. He"d like to work on his development as a musician.

     "A friend of mine came back from studying in Spain," he says, "and his instructor there said one kind of guitarist plays because he loves music and the other because he loves the guitar. He thought the one who loves music is the better player. I'm not that guy.

     "I just like fiddling with guitars. To me, they sound good even when you drop them on the floor."

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