Leo Kottke is a musician’s musician, enjoyed by those who love his unique guitar playing style and sound and appreciated by musicians and guitarists who understand his incredible guitar talent and virtuosity. The word “virtuoso” may well be overused, but when referencing Leo Kottke, it is absolutely true. Leo Kottke is a true virtuoso, a legendary master of the five-finger picking technique and 12-string slide instrumentals. Kottke is on tour right now, as he has been off and on for about the last 40 years, and seeing him perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, was a great opportunity to see his talents up close.
Born in Athens, GA, and well traveled as a child, his first album was released in 1969, and his second and most well known album, 6 & 12 String Guitar, released the same year, embodied rural American acoustic folk and bluegrass and was hailed for its original guitar playing style. (And, maybe for some of the liner notes, such as Kottke’s album note for the track “Vaseline Machine Gun”): “(1) for waking up nude in a sleeping bag on the shore of the Atlantic surrounded by a volleyball game at high noon, and 2) for the end of the volleyball game)”
Since then, Kottke has released over 23 albums and composed scores for television shows, film soundtracks, and even a symphony. His most recent release is the 2005 duo album Sixty Six Steps, with Mike Gordon, the bass player from Phish. Yes, it seems an odd match, with the two a full generation apart in age, but it is a collaboration that works. Kottke is mainly a guitar player, though he sings occasionally on some songs, and while he may not be a great singer, (he compared his craggy baritone to “geese farts on a muggy day” in those same liner notes), he held his own. Because of this, the comparison can be made to Tom Waits, though his vocals are not as rough, and I have heard Garrison Keillor, due to his storytelling ability, though the comparison definitely ends there. Kottke suffered a hand and wrist injury in the early ’80s which greatly limited his ability to play the way he was used to – which is, with his vigorous and aggressive picking style – so he took what was basically a three-year leave of absence from the music business and focused on studying classical guitar, learning to read music, and over that time he developed a different way to play the guitar that was much easier on his hand. Which is fortunate for us, as it’s lucky he still plays and tours at all after his injury.
On stage with only himself and two guitars, a six-string and a 12-string, Kottke entertained the audience with his brilliant guitar playing and humorous banter. Kottke displays a very wry self-deprecating sense of humor on stage, and comes off as somewhat eccentric, with his stories encapsulating episodes in his life and people he’s met and worked with, but very entertaining regardless. In discussing why he decided to go with the guitar, he noted, “If you fell for the bagpipe, where are you now? And piccolo players, thank God for the 4th of July.” Kottke mainly played his own compositions, such as the excellent “Ojo,” and “Julie’s House,” but he also played a Pete Seeger cover, (Seeger was an early influence) “Living In The Country,” and “Long Steam Engine Train,” by John Fahey (another early influence), as well as “Louise” by Paul Siebel. According to some Internet write-ups, Pete Seeger called Kottke “the best guitar player (he ever) heard.”
Kottke plays with a distinctive flourish and nails harmonics notes at high speed, as if they were just your average every-day ordinary notes. Seeing him live, if you close your eyes, it sometimes sounds like there are actually two or three guitars playing instead of just the one. Suffering a loss of hearing in his left air due to a firecracker accident as a child, and suffering right-ear damage from firing practice during a stint in the Naval Reserve, it is a wonder that he was able to achieve the level of mastery that he has over the guitar. Not unheard of, of course, but it has to make it that much tougher. Go to see Leo Kottke and you’ll get to see a very talented guitarist and storyteller up there doing it all by himself, and you will not be disappointed.
If you’re interested, you can also check out this great interview with Kottke from 1999.
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10
With over 30 years of recording and touring already behind them, the Church have persevered through lineup changes, label changes, and many years of relatively disappointing sales following their worldwide breakout hit, the mystically brilliant “Under the Milky Way Tonight”, from their 1988 Starfish album. Thirty years can make even the hardiest bands fall apart, or, at the very least, break up for a number of years until it’s time to reunite for an “oldies” reunion. And though “Under The Milky Way Tonight”, their one and only U.S. top 40 hit, was 24 years ago, the Church has soldiered on, building a cottage industry from their 23 studio albums (based on Australian issues of original studio recordings, including EPs), live albums, DVDs, and other merchandise (Church refrigerator magnets?) and sustaining it all through consistent touring, and recording new material, separated by a few solo projects and occasional time apart.
For this, over 30 years of recording and touring, they are a rarity in the world of professional music. Other than a drummer replacement very early on and in 1994, and Koppes’ temporary departure, the Church’s lineup has also remained relatively stable, with Peter Koppes and Marty Wilson-Piper on guitars and backing vocals and Steve Kilbey on bass and lead vocals.
Formed in Sydney, Australia in 1980, the Church have been through plenty of career ups and downs, but today they seem to be as unified as a band as ever, taking full advantage of the digital age, and even forming their own label, Unorthodox Records. They are also in the midst of a release of remastered versions of their first eight studio albums, and are planning a triumphant 30th Anniversary show in April at the Lyric Opera House in Sydney. (Who knew without the Church, there may have been no Smiths?)
Their current tour follows the recent pattern we’ve seen of bands playing entire “classic” albums all the way through, and the Church have gone all out on this tour, playing their most recent album, Untitled #23, the brilliantly experimental Priest=Aura, and the iconic Starfish in their entirety (in reverse chronological order), much as the Cure performed their classic “Trilogy” sets in 2003. The Church also added a guest keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist for this tour, “whose hopes and aspirations I will not speak to”, said Kilbey as he introduced the band. This helped to fill out the sound, as well as providing the needed instrumentation to play through three complete albums from their catalog – over three hours of music.
Unfortunately, after listening to Untitled #23, and then hearing it live, compared directly against Priest=Aura and Starfish, Untitled #23 sounded slower, drawn out and discordant. However, after the 15-minute intermission between the first and second sets, there was an entirely different feeling of creative energy emanating from the stage. What followed was brilliant and captivating, and much more inspirational. What preceded was disappointing, though still interesting from a musicianship perspective.
While some of the Church’s albums from their prolific career have longer songs and more experimental music, Untitled #23 sounded as if each musician was playing their part separately from the other musicians and was more focused on experimental and meandering guitar, keyboard and bass work, than on presenting cohesive songs. This is fine, in and of itself, and there were a few redeeming moments, however, the second and third sets featured more potent and powerful songs, as opposed to what felt like a collection of people playing their instruments at the same time.
After the success of Starfish, the Church felt constrained by the label’s pressure to have “hits” as well as dealing with label-picked producers controlling their sound. After the relatively lackluster sales of Gold Afternoon Fix, which the Church unfortunately dismissed as “hashed together” and “lousy”, they started working from a base of much lower expectations. In many ways, this allowed them to have more freedom with their music and allowed for more experimental, expansive and longer pieces, but these soundscapes sometimes lacked the cohesion of their earlier work. This came through loud and clear live, as the more the Church worked their way backwards through their catalog, the more coherent, and musically accessible side of the Church’s earlier work came through, in sharp contrast to the extended-jam, non-song feel of Untitled #23.
To put it more succinctly, the second and third sets ROCKED. The songs were tight, the band picked up the pace and each song seemed to be building towards a greater climax. Priest=Aura featured extensive and elaborate guitar work, and ferocious interplay between Wilson-Piper and Koppes. Songs like “Ripple” and “Feel” were brilliant and sounded fresh again. “The Disillusionist” still felt timely, speaking to current world events, just as it spoke to events going on during the Iraq War almost 20 years ago. As Peter Koppes described it in a recent interview, “‘Priest = Aura’…is the artistic high point, the overlooked, monumental masterpiece of the band,” and it felt like it this night.
And, to top it all off, hearing them play “Under The Milky Way” “Spark” and “Reptile” from Starfish was breathtaking as well, and they just seemed to pour out more energy the longer they played. “Hotel Womb”, somewhat appropriately, closed out the brilliant set and the extraordinary evening.
In this, their 30th Anniversary year, the Church are still showing why they belong in the pantheon of the greatest alternative rock bands ever.
Check out the Church’s live KEXP performance from February 8th for yourself here: http://goo.gl/sPCFc
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10