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Leo Kotke

This story appears in the May 3 print edition of CityBeat.

Listening to Leo Kotke’s music is a unique and confusing experience. Whether you play a 6-string or a 12-string guitar, you can swear that two or more people are responsible for the music Kotke creates. Melodies leap and twist; suddenly a glassy sweep of the slide appears, blurring the notes like an index window; or a familiar theme, such as America the Beautiful, may pop up out of the blue. All the while, steady bass strings are thumbed down, keeping the song from collapsing into a cacophony of steel and wood like a block hastily plucked from a Jenga tower.

Kotke first gained attention on John Fahey’s Takoma Records label with a 1969 album 6- and 12-string guitar, which fans call simply “armadillo”. Featuring some of his best compositions such as ‘The Driving of the Year Nail’, his arrangement of Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ and the feverish ‘Vaseline Machine Gun’, 6- and 12-string guitar has established itself as a solid and highly influential record for beginning fingerpickers working on the American primitive scene, a style of guitar playing developed and popularized by Fahey.

Kotke’s influence can be heard in the music of countless guitarists, from the late Jack Rose to James Blackshaw, William Tyler, and Daniel Bachman. Most recently, he returned to collaborating with Phish’s Mike Gordon, resulting in the 2020s. At noon. Kottke and Gordon first worked together in 2002, producing Clone and later well received Sixty-six steps in 2005.

For a mostly instrumental musician, Kotke is also a natural storyteller with a quirky sense of humor and deadpan delivery. Just a glance at the titles of his songs — such as “When Shrimp Learn to Whistle” — will confirm this. In live performances, he is known to entertain his audience between songs with funny anecdotes from his life. A story about his time in Oklahoma called “Whitey and the Chicken” from a 1981 concert is a great example and can be found on YouTube. Leo Kottke is an incredibly talented guitarist and songwriter, and an American treasure. Don’t miss the chance to see a true troubadour in action.

Leo Kottke plays Ludlow Garage at 8.30pm on May 19. Doors open at 7 p.m. Information:

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