Leo Kottke, an acoustic blues and folk-style guitar player, and two other Minneapolis-based musicians, Willie Murphy and Reynold Philipsek, bring their Minneapolis-based brew of blues, folk and jazz to Bayfront Festival Park on Saturday night.
Kottke, who has played at Big Top Chautauqua and Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica in recent years, is the first large-ish act booked at Bayfront by Secret Service Entertainment this year. Kottke also performed in Duluth for a live production of "A Prairie Home Companion" at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in 2005.
Kottke has a policy of giving only e-mail interviews. Here are our questions and his responses.
Q: What is it that initially attracted you to playing music, and how have you kept that attraction new and alive?
A: I'd been sick for a long time and the guitar cured me. It was a toy guitar, a gift from my mom. Something an 11-year-old could play while flat on his back. I made a noise and knew instantly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I didn't know or care that the guitar would be a job, I didn't know from jobs. All I cared about was the guitar. And that sound, initially an E major chord, was the key. I sat up.
Q: In your career you've cranked out albums for a major label, and then been able to slow down and do things your own way. What did that creative shift feel like?
A: The Big Un-Crank. Capitol, Chrysalis and RCA were the other half of what I did. Now the labels are re-orienting and so are the acts. For the time being, it's performance that counts, but it's always been that way. Records will be replaced by something, if it hasn't already happened, but performance is the same as it was 600 years ago. Better food today, maybe.
Q: You described your voice as "geese farts on a muggy day" and said that "when you burp and try to amplify your burp -- that's almost the same as singing." Using that same picturesque language, can you describe your guitar playing?
A: I can't. Never have been able to. I use my right hand, play the thing like a piano, and don't have to treat it like a horn. Maybe the most distinguishing thing is that I play my own stuff most of the time.
That's the hook, coming up with these tunes. And it's always changing, all of it, it's alive and I follow it. Pretty cool.
Q: When you consider your discography, what are the songs that wow you? Are there recordings that you wish you had never done or done in a completely different way?
A: That's what Glenn Gould would have called a centipedal question.
Answering it would get me in trouble, basically with myself. Stan Getz said you should always play with irreverence. That's very good advice.
In some of his most moving passages, "Emily" with Bill Evans, for example, you hear that non-romantic floor ... but it's not anti-romantic, and that might be where the mystery sits.
Q: You're known for your laid-back shows. Just music and anecdotes. Is that how you've always done things, or at some point were you into showy shows?
A: I'm not as laid-back as Lady Gaga. That's laid-back.
Q: Who are the musicians that you've learned from, both old and new? Any influences that would surprise people? Maybe even outside of music?
A: Very few people actually know who their influences are. The ones who have found out, an ugly experience, will never admit it. It's safe to say that reading prose has everything to do with how I feel the stuff I write, with what I need, with the satisfaction of it. The rhythms of language are the rhythms of music. Joan Didion, Robert Lowell, and on...
Q: Whenever a young dexterous guitar player comes along and knocks people's socks off, he or she gets compared to you. What are some of the strangest comparisons that you've seen?
A: I was compared to a bucket of warm spit. Actually, the wording was, "Everybody knows acoustic guitar players aren't worth a bucket of warm spit ..." It's not easy to stand out in a bucket of warm spit, but I did it. It was an excellent review, meaning, his opinions were defensible. The review was convincing. I began to feel bucket-like.
My friend Adrian Rawlins in Melbourne, Australia, wrote a review in the '80s of Eartha Kitt. He enthused that hearing her was like being in Mistinguet's dressing room and smelling her tutu. Reviews, comparisons, can get very visceral, and a rave can be just as revolting as a blow to the head.
Q: What do you have planned for your show here in Duluth?
A: I don't plan; that's bad news for a solo act. I love to play, and it's a privilege to play -- so that kicks in and I have, usually, a good time. (And it's hard to have a good time if the crowd isn't.)
There's two ways to go with performance. Robert Klein, the comedian, opened for me, two shows a night, in L.A. for a week, in the early '70s. He delivered word for word, gesture for gesture, identically every set. I laughed every time, surprised every time, every joke.
On the last night I told him how it never got old, and I asked him how he got up for that -- word for word, gesture for gesture -- and he said, "What's the alternative?" That's what show business is -- thank you Mr. Robert Klein -- I don't care if you're playing a dead possum and can't spell your own name, that's what you're doing on a good night. If your heart surgeon doesn't like his job, your heart is doomed.
Q: Why do you only do e-mail interviews?
A: I talk too much.