Four times in my life I have been reduced to a quivering, jaw-dragging blob of stupefaction at the hands of one performer with an acoustic guitar. The first of the solo supernovas was Neil Young, whose heavy hands on the guitar and brushfire of a voice channeled a godly passion; the second was Bruce Cockburn, who mesmerized with a combination of sweet picking, gorgeous chord progressions and fiery-smooth vocals; the third was the late Michael Hedges, an untamed beast of a musician whose playing, it seemed, beckoned the Four Horsemen of the Acoustic Apocalypse.
The fourth was Leo Kottke, by far the most conventional—in terms of style—of the bunch. He walked out on to the stage, picked up his 12-string (he alternates, string-wise, between a dozen and a half dozen), said a few words (he would eventually say many more) and then began to play, simply at first, with no apparent effort, and then slightly quicker and louder, until suddenly it seemed as if there were five guitarists on the stage at once and the sound from that one guitar washed over the entire theater and stood every molecule of space on its ear and then it abruptly stopped. And in the ensuing stunned silence Kottke let loose with a rambling, hilarious yarn about some dog he used to have.
Kottke doesn’t have one hook on which to hang his musical hat; his songs have been described as anything from classical to blues to bluegrass to jazz and even, when existing words in the language failed, as “chamber-folk.” But as you may expect out of a musician whose early influences included Mississippi John Hurt, Chet Atkins and Roy Clark, Kottke is simply, in the most complex sense of the term, a guitar player.
And guitar is what you get with Kottke. Whether it’s six- or twelve-string, fingerpicking or slide, slow, luscious melodies or blistering fretwork, Kottke is a marvel to behold with that one simple tool in his hands. But although his virtuosity on solo guitar is easily enough to sustain a rapt attention to his performances, Kottke does intersperse his instrumental numbers with lyrical tunes, sung quite well in a gravelly baritone despite his own description of that voice as akin to “geese farts on a muggy day.”
The real bonus of a Kottke show, though, is that his mastery on guitar is nearly matched by his sense of humor (his library of song titles include “1/2 Acre of Garlic,” “Burnt Lips,” and “Even His Feet Look Sad”) and the delivery of his between-song soliloquies, which range from a few seconds to several minutes in duration. These aren’t stand-up jokes or political jabs or see-I’m-not-too-big-to-speak-with-my-audience kind of natterings. These are full-blown Keillor-esque ramblings that come out of nowhere and often end up right back where they started, with the whole audience along for the joy ride.
Leo Kottke plays the University Theatre Tuesday, March 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets $18 in advance and $20 day of show, available at all TIC-IT-E-Z locations or by calling 1-888-MONTANA.