“This is a weird job,” Leo Kottke said about halfway through his Easter Sunday concert in Newark, Ohio, as he contemplated the “black knob” – also known as a mic – staring him in the face.
Being a solo act, flying without a setlist and having no one to play with, makes for antisocial performances, Kottke said later in the show as he joked about the Donner Party survivors who opened a restaurant in San Francisco.
“They have a new menu,” he said.
Between his musings and for the third time in as many years, Kottke held the audience at 31 West in rapt silence as he demonstrated what an acoustic guitar – two, actually; a 12-string and a six-string – can sound like in the right hands. And in Kotte’s hands, the guitar can sound like a bass, a dulcimer and multiple guitars all at the same time.
For 95 minutes, the peerless axman ran through a mix of covers like the Allman Brothers Band’s “Little Martha” and originals such as “Julie’s House” on a stage adorned with nothing but a chair, a mic stand, a Persian rug and Kottke’s two guitars. And although there was nothing to see in terms of staging or lights; Kottke’s hands were a show unto themselves.
When Kottke played slide, his guitars rattled and rolled like a raging river. When his fingers danced along their necks, Kottke’s guitars rang out with harmonics and other consonant sounds. The capo he employed on “Corrina, Corrina” provided yet another tuning to the many he used throughout the evening.
He was funny, but less talkative than usual, hitting an occasional bum note – which almost never happens – and taking his time to tune up. This is a fine thing where Kottke is concerned because his tunings are often as intriguing as other artists’ songs.
“All you get with a tuner is an opinion,” he said during one such exercise.
Most of the songs were instrumentals, numbers like “Wet Floor” and “Cripple Creek” and he occasionally sung tunes like “Last Train to Chico” in his affective baritone.
No matter what he was doing – playing, playing and singing or tossing off the goofball asides that mark his performances – the audience was pin-drop quiet, laughing at his between-song banter and breaking into applause only after the last sound of each song faded into the ether and rewarding the guitarist with a raucous standing ovation after the final tune – an encore that wasn’t an encore.
“That’s the end of he set,” he said as he remained seated and swapped his six-string for the 12 he’d put aside after a handful of opening numbers.
“I’d like to play the encore now and we can all leave the building at the same time.”
And we did.
And it was nearly perfect.