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Treat yourself to the fleet-fingered brilliance of Leo Kottke

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Have you ever felt brilliant? I’m not talking about having a fleeting success, like kicking the winning goal in a soccer shoot-out or acing a test. Have you ever played a whole game in the “zone”? Have you ever been in such command of a class that the tests were fun? I’m asking, have you ever done something, anything, so completely well that you can imagine, if only for a little while, that you’ve found your calling, your art?

We could always tell that Michael Jordan felt brilliant; the way his post-game interviews were confident but strangely distant made apparent that the man could talk about his own game like we all did, with a muted respect that we reserve for works of art. It is quite a thing to behold, the artist in awe of his own work.

Reading a recent interview of Leo Kottke in Acoustic Guitar, I had the same sense of man confidently, but not vaingloriously, discussing his work not because it is a source of pride, but a magnetic interest. Kottke seemed unable to contain the acquired wisdom of 25 years songwriting, recording and above all, performing.

Kottke’s latest, One Guitar/No Vocals is exactly that, and is a testament to what can be done with a singular focus and one instrument. Kottke’s brand of folk guitar will seem so much more than folk, almost like a classical rendering of folk, tweaked by the informed skill of a jazzman’s digits. In fact, Kottke notes such “digital thrills,” commenting that his song “Peckerwood” is all about his fingers, a tune where he “can just get in, close the door and it will take off.”

But the most interesting thing about Kottke’s latest is how clearly he understands the needs of a given song. Just because he can launch into lightning runs across the fret board doesn’t mean that he ought to, a fact of which Kottke the composer is acutely aware.

Perhaps Kottke’s success is due to this restrained, self-critical streak. Weighing in on the issue of effects pedals, like an ex-junkie he says, “It’s very dangerous to fool with that stuff ... because your first reaction is to fall in love with it, and the minute you feel yourself doing that ... you should run like a scalded ape because that’s really a guarantee that you’re about to put your ass in a sling. I fell in love with a chorus pedal for about a year and damn near ruined my career.”

Free of effects pedals and in it for more than digital thrills, Kottke will bring the raw skill of a man at the top of his game, and no doubt feel brilliant.

Leo Kottke plays the University Theatre on Thursday, March 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets $16, $18.

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