Author’s Note: I often had a chance to preview touring artists, soon to be playing in Northern Ireland, in the Irish News, a Belfast-based daily paper with a generous arts section and a lot of fine writers involved (including my friend Trevor Hodgett). On this occasion I took a rare NI show by guitar icon Leo Kottke as an opportunity to conduct a phone interview ahead of the event. I can recall being surprised and delighted that, after the show, I wound up in a late-night coffee shop about two miles from the venue… only to discover that Leo had had the same idea and was somehow already there! 

 

Leo Kottke Interview

Published: The Irish News, Belfast, 29 May 1998

For those interested in classy guitar music, Belfast has seen a real embarrassment of riches in terms of visiting artists from Britain and America in recent months. Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, Chris Smither and only this week Dick Gaughan to name but a few. But perhaps the most exciting name to have been pencilled into the diary since the start of the year – and there were those who thought ‘no, it’ll never happen…’ – has been that of American 12-string acoustic legend Leo Kottke. And sure enough tonight [Friday 29th], at the Waterfront Hall’s BT Studio, after 30 years in the business one of the genuine godfathers of acoustic guitar wizardry makes his Northern Irish debut.

Raised in Athens, Georgia, currently touring 80% of the year and living in Minneapolis (“at least that’s where my house is…”) and coming to steel-strung solo guitar music via the trombone at a time in pop history when there wasn’t actually a market for such stuff, Leo Kottke could never be accused of making commercial use of bandwagons and trends:

“I think you can avoid trends by not having any hits” he told me on a transatlantic phone call. “I’ve succeeded in that! On the other hand, if you sell enough records you basically get all the benefits without any of the hassle. It continues to be a perfect job – they let you play and then they pay you for it…”

For all his travelling, and a long association with UK label Chrysalis in the 1970s, UK shows have still been a rarity. But more so dates in Ireland: “I’ve only played once in Ireland and that was Dublin. I’ve never been to Belfast before. Last year I had three shows in Ireland which I wound up cancelling – I’d got really sick in Germany. So I’m really pleased and surprised that somebody was prepared to bet on me again. In fact, those three dates were the first I’d cancelled in 20 years. I’m looking forward to it.”

With a voice kicking around the Johnny Cash octave area, a dust-dry sense of humour, tendency to lyrical surrealism and the un-coveted title of Only Man In Showbusiness To Cover A Tune By The Mahavishnu Orchestra, being commercial is not high on Kottke’s priority list, yet his records are consistently lovable, quirky little postcards from the musical Far Side, laced with their own wry takes on the alternating pathos and celebration of life:

            “When it comes to records I’m really just ‘hanging out’” he says. “I’m by myself so much – when I’m onstage, touring – it’s just a great opportunity to meet some other mammals when I make a record!” The last one, Standing In My Shoes, featured full band and serious production courtesy of Prince man David Z – one of Kottke’s old pals from way back. The next one will be an all-instrumental solo affair because, remarkably, that’s what his record company, BMG, actually want. Even more remarkable, he cites an early-80s near career-crippling bout of tendonitis – which forced him to throw away his finger-picks and relearn with a classical technique – in improving his ability to carry such a project by composition rather than flash:

“In the long run it was a great affliction to have but at the time, for well over three years, it was awful. I’d go on stage and last for maybe 10 minutes on a good night before my hand would literally freeze up. Of course, I had to pretend everything was fine when I was playing horribly and appeared to be a complete idiot. But you can’t just stand up there and tell people you’re sorry they showed up ‘cos you’re really gonna suck. Oh boy, it’s a lesson of some kind…”

And, being a godfather of the genre, has he heard anyone good in the world of steel-strung virtuosity of late?

“I don’t do a lot of listening” he admits. “I’m just a pig about the guitar – if I need some sound I’ll just pick up a guitar. I kinda have to force myself every couple of years to stop and look around, see what’s going on. One guy I’ve seen recently that really made an impression me – and you really have to see him live – is Kelly Joe Phelps. There are others. I, of course, am always hard pressed to remember who the hell they are when the question comes up – and it always does! At least I got Kelly out there!”

One more name he’ll be adding to that list after tonight will surely be Belfast’s own fingerstyle guitar wiz Colin Reid. Fresh from a Scottish tour with Bert Jansch, Reid will be providing support tonight. Tickets are apparently still available, so my advice would be get on the phone to the booking office now!

Colin Harper