After over thirty years of recording, a lifetime of circular, melodious grooves and tireless touring, luminary acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke has released his first entirely collaborative album with Phish bassist Mike Gordon. The two came to Sanders Theater on Wednesday Nov. 6th, supporting the Private Music/RCA Victor release Clone.
Kottke was born Sept. 11, 1945 in Athens, Georgia and raised in 12 different states; he strikes one as an itinerant traveler and this album is no departure from the range of sound and style which he has fostered in himself. After developing a love for the country-blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Kottke lost much of the hearing in his left ear as a result of a mishap with a firecracker. During a later time in the Naval Reserve, his right ear suffered permanent damage during firing practice. But, despite whatever keenness he lacks physically, the tone he produces with his echo-in-a-hollow-barrel of a voice and warm 12-string and six-string guitar playing soothes and sounds past any apparent need for rehabilitation.
The sold out Wednesday evening show was a display of such health. Mike Gordon, having attended the very same show a year ago when Kottke played solo for a diverse audience now joked about how he had found a better seat closer to Kottke: on stage. Gordon’s playing on his five-string bass fused much of Kottke’s first position finger-picking with his walking and generous bass finger styling. Gordon’s ability to as, Kottke quipped, “transpose on-the-go,” gave the tunes they had worked up together a sort of carefree ambling. Gordon’s bass notes lived in empty spaces of Kottke-esque chord changes and munificently rode the shoulders of slides and flourishes.
The show began with the instrumental, “Arko,” and included stripped down renditions of the entire fourteen-song album Clone, with a one-song encore, “That’s So Racist!” There were difficulties for the pair in transitions and in achieving the complicated structure of their tunes live. Often in the earlier songs, especially “Same Left-Foot Freckle” Gordon’s voice was out of harmony with Kottke’s deep tremolo. Kottke appeared to get lost three times in his playing out of time with Gordon’s playful bass in the earlier goings. But, by the seventh song of the set, “Car Carrier Blues,” (a song, Gordon explained, had been written by his friend Joe Lenitz, “Who wears goggles when he drives, and he hates to drive”) the pair were relaxed and producing fluid music, intermixed with silly storytelling. Kottke refers to his storytelling as ‘casting spells.’ Kottke the Magician’s performance at Sanders featured a story about a beach in Nashville, Tennessee that could never exist, friends being hit in the street by poultry trucks and pizza delivery-songwriters named Frisbee Boom Boom Fuller who penned the third track on the album, “From Pizza Towers to Defeat.”
Fans who had traveled in the rain and cold to see their weary-voiced troubadour and his new sidekick were enthusiastic at further collaboration. There was a buzz about the first such pairing in Kottke’s career. “I came all the way from Washington state to visit my friend at Harvard and see the show. The way the music hits you its like he’s having a party on the guitar. All I can say is whew, what a p-a-r-t-y,” said one fan, Sarah Whippet, after the show, capturing the spirited playfulness of the evening. Well-put sentiments about an entertaining show—the fruits of a unique collaboration.