Medicine man

Acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke brings his chops and humor to Paradise

Preview: Leo Kottke solo, Paradise Performing Arts Center, Sunday, April 20 7:30 p.m. Learn more at

You’ve just gotta love a guy whose only furniture is “a cactus next to a radio.” I mean, how precious is that? A cactus because he’s on the road 45 weeks of the year, and a radio because, well, it’s good to have a radio. It plays music, for one thing. And playing music is why this guy is away from his Minneapolis home so much. I’m talking about the widely known—some say legendary—acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke.

I got the scoop about him from his promoter, Bill Kiely (UpWest Arts), who lives in Port Townsend, Wash. Kiely has traveled a lot with Kottke and knows a thing or two about him, like the reason why I was unable to get an interview: Sometimes he feels like it and sometimes he doesn’t.

Kottke is a shy man, I was told, and sometimes he just needs his solitude, a little breather after giving interviews and playing gigs. Kottke isn’t a publicity seeker. To illustrate, Kiely mentioned Kottke’s friend, Lyle Lovett, with whom Kottke has recorded. When Lovett and Kottke are out in public, it is the very recognizable Lovett who always gets mobbed by people wanting his autograph. Kottke “doesn’t have a celebrity face,” and he likes it that way.

To put it simply, Kottke is a talented man ("virtuoso” and “master” are two terms that are often used to describe him) who loves the guitar, both the six- and 12-string varieties (he actually plays slide on a 12-string!). Kiely said that guitar playing is like medicine for Kottke. He’s seen Kottke go on stage at the beginning of a show sick and be healthy by the end from playing his guitar.

Kottke has viewed his guitar as a healer ever since he was bedridden for months as a child and the only thing that would cure him was his mother bringing him his first guitar. Kottke, in fact, speaks about his talent for the guitar in similarly magical terms: He doesn’t know where it comes from, but “it comes and gets you.”

Kottke is also a very funny man. You get a little clue about that from some of his album titles: Peculiaroso, Great Big Boy, Standing in My Shoes—and song titles such as “Vaseline Machine Gun,” “Monkey Lust,” “Peckerwood” and “Even His Feet Look Sad.” His shows are famous for a mixture of witty, wacky monologue and amazing guitar playing.

Kottke uses humor as an “antidote,” as Kiely put it, to his brilliant playing. He likes to tell a foolish story after playing a stunning piece in an effort to undercut his own brilliance. Kottke can’t hang with just being Mr. Guitar Virtuoso. “He never has an ego.” He’s shy, remember? That’s how his onstage patter began, to overcome his shyness. And when he discovered that he could make people laugh, Kottke ran with it. Says Kottke: “The only thing is the laugh. Some people have to find God. I had to find the punch line.” Saved by humor. Lucky for us!

It was humor that first attracted the usually solo Kottke and Phish bass player Mike Gordon to one another fairly recently. As soon as they met, Kiely explained, Kottke and Gordon found that their senses of humor were equal. Then they discovered that their musical ideas jelled as well: “They both have huge ears!” The rest , as the ever-quoted “they” say, is history: Kottke and Gordon’s collaboration produced an album—Clone (2002)—and tour. And for Kottke, this collaboration also produced a whole new generation of fans young enough to be his kids, some of them budding guitarists who can be found out back after his shows these days wanting to thank Kottke for inspiring them.

Kottke rolls into Paradise on Easter Sunday, April 20, for his one-man show at the Paradise Performing Arts Center. Kiely promises “new, dark, long” instrumental pieces—"good Easter music"—in addition to songs from anywhere in Kottke’s 30-year-plus career, chosen randomly that night, depending on the audience. Kottke never works from a set list; he improvises the content of his show, songs and stories as he goes along, moved by however the audience responds to him.

The task Kottke has set for himself, Kiely said, is “how to fall in love with the guitar, with music,” over and over again—a task that he willingly, happily, passionately, successfully takes on, passing his joy on to the audience. Audiences all over the United States, Europe and Australia will attest to that.

As his Windham Hill publicity states, "Kottke demonstrates … how simple wood and string can be made gloriously eloquent." As guitar giant Joe Pass, with whom Kottke toured Australia, used to say often after coming off stage after his now-legendary concerts with Kottke and fellow guitar masters Paco Peña and Pepe Romero: "What a great night for the guitar." Indeed, Kottke runs with the best of them. His Easter show promises to be a great night for the guitar—and for the funny bone!