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On Old Folk Heros – Leo Kottke, Jan. 10, 2009

16 Jan

Some few months before the swollen floodwaters of the Red River would overtake the Empire Theater and a fire would rage next door, ravaging a portion of downtown Grand Forks, Leo Kottke played there. It was probably January or February of 1997, the snowiest and coldest winter I can remember (although our current season is beginning to come close), and for Christmas my mother gave me two tickets to go see Leo, whom I’d never heard of. I was perhaps begrudging, being asked to go see a folk singer, really? We had gone to see Boiled in Lead a year or so prior to be sure, but that was different. They were inspired in part by Metallica, and their fiddle player had long wild hair and played on an electric blue fiddle. That was cool. This seemed boring.

“I could go with you if you like,” my mom said. “I’ll take Robin.” I said. Robin was my closest friend at the time. I had just transferred to EGF Senior High School and didn’t know anyone all too well, but Robin would go with me – she had a boyfriend so it wouldn’t seem like a date, and she was pretty much up for anything, which made her a safe choice to accompany me to go see the unknown folk singer. The coming flood would wash her house all the way out into the country next to mine. Not literally, of course. The water filled her century-old house up to the ceiling of the first floor but didn’t destroy the foundation, and her family would pull it out of the ground and move it by truck six miles out into the country but just one mile from me, making her my closest and only neighborhood friend.

So there I sat, transfixed. I would later compare it to driving up to a mountain range (this despite having never seen a mountain at close range at that point.) The mountain looks fairly small in the distance, and it is only until you drive right up underneath the thing and bend ninety degrees backward trying to see the top of the thing – it is only then that you truly appreciate the scope and vastness of your difference in overall density. The mountain is huge and you are rather tiny and inconsequential. This is how I felt seeing Leo Kottke live for the first time. I was a cocky sixteen year old with three years of self-taught guitar in my fingers. I thought I was pretty good. Two hours later, I had learned what a mountain looks like.

And the sound issued from that guitar; a sound so messy but pure, so fast but precise, so bright but cynical too. I have never heard anything like it from any other guitarist ever again. So I keep going back to see Leo.

I went back on February 4th, 1999, with a real date this time (Jenna – we dated for about four months my junior year in high school. We never kissed and therefore, perhaps, are still friends.) I went back on January 21st of 2000 with my mom, this time, sweet payback for her I suppose, and had to drive all the way to Fargo, ND to catch that show. I went back on November 26th, 2000 and brought a little blond girl named Brooke for no particular reason other that she was cute and in my acting class. If it was a date, it was our only one – perhaps that’s why I took Robin the first time. I went back on November 25th, 2001, this time inviting Jen Rand to meet me at the Ordway and share the show. Neither of us had cars, and somehow she forgot. I sat next to an empty seat in the 9th row and watched Leo spin gold out of 12 copper strings and a jumbo body Taylor. To her credit, she felt bad and made me a card of apology. I may still have it, I’m not sure.

I went back on November 20th of 2003 and again on February 3rd, 2007, both with Nicole – the first before we were dating, and the second after we had broken up. The bookends of the relationship, if one wanted to be retrospectively and inaccurately cute about it.

And I went back last Saturday. As a birthday present for her dad and almost at the last minute, Katie Rose & I purchased the tickets ($50 a pop, no small price especially after all the Christmas spending) and drove with her father through the fading winter sunlight to St. Croix Falls, WI., where we would dine at the (only) fancy restaurant in town and then watch Leo Kottke play his second night straight at the Festival Theater. The place was entirely packed and we were seated in what must have been the last three seats they had together when I called, all the way at the back on the far right side, a seven-inch pole slightly obstructing the view for the third seat in. Leo came in, the old black blazer, jeans, and sneakers, and played 90 minutes straight, no intermission, no back-up, no nothing. Just Leo Kottke, two guitars, a room full of people, and for me – a 12 year history leading up to this point.

He tells stories that get mixed up in his music, twirled together with the strings that he is almost constantly re-tuning from tune to tune. On Saturday, he peered out at us as he tuned and off-handedly stated, “I learned the secret to life today.” There was a pause as he played a tiny bit of a song. He grinned. “I’m not kidding, I really did.” He played the same little bit of music again, holding us all in our waiting, half-expecting him to jump to the next thing in his head and forget to tell us what the secret was. If you’ve ever heard him tell a story (go here for an example) you’ll know that there are no guarantees of a happy ending, or even of an ending at all. Sometimes you’re lucky to get an anecdote, although you’ll always get the next song.

“When you get up in the morning…”  He squints into the lights, looking out at us for maximum impact.  “…go back to bed.”  he laughs.  The story ends.  The song begins.


So if I’m saying anything in this concert review of sorts, it’s that maybe you should go see him if you ever get a chance. Or if not him, go see the person that’s important to you, the one that you keep going back to see, not because it’s cool, but because you haven’t seen enough yet. Go see the one that you’ll never see enough of.

Me? I’ll get up in the morning, put on the coffee, put on one of the Kottke albums that Katie Rose’s dad gave us from his personal collection upon finding out that we both liked him, and crawl back to into bed with my love. And despite the fact that this going-back-to-bed secret wasn’t much of a secret, I’ll add this action to the pool of shared morning re-sleepers and guitar-eyed dreamers, as well as find kinship with those who also bring their parents out to see the old folk singers everywhere.

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