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A divine experience with Leo Kottke

By Staff | Dec 28, 2011

One of today’s most successful television advertising campaigns is the “Most Interesting Man Alive” beer commercial; that bearded icon has been worth his weight in gold for driving interest and sales for the Mexican cerveza.

However, if Dos Equis should ever contemplate expanding this campaign and introducing a second character, they should, in my humble opinion, consider using a non-fictional figure, a real living legend Leo Kottke.

The dialogue would go something like this: “He is the greatest acoustic guitar player in the worldHe is one of the most captivating storytellers of our ageHe could be a top-flight stand-up comedian if he so chose He may know more people in this world than any other person on Earth”

I recently flew from West Virginia to see Leo perform in a two night engagement in upstate New York at the Charles R. Wood Theater in the charming town of Glens Falls. For those who’ve never seen one of Kottke’s shows it is basically two-thirds jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, acoustic musical magic (in a genre that cannot be classified, but includes distilled parts of folk, blues, country, jazz and classical music) and one-third wry humor and storytelling; stories from his illustrious career, stories of his childhood, stories from beyond the ether, stories from the heart and mind of an impish, roguish genius.

I spent the afternoon on the day of his first night’s show in Saratoga Springs, walking about the city. I stopped in the war museum, which highlighted New York’s long history of involvement in battle, from the Revolutionary war to all the contributions New Yorkers have made to our overseas engagements.

One particularly exhibit that touched me was a taped oral recollection from a navigator on a U.S. bomber flying missions over Germany. On one of his early missions the plane was experiencing heavy flak and right as they were dropping their bombs a large piece of shrapnel ripped through the plane and his upper arm.

The arm was barely attached and the environs of his compartment were turning crimson from the flowing blood. Yet he recalled that there was no pain, and in fact he had the most overwhelming feeling of peace that he had ever experienced come over him (back in England, doctors managed to save his limb).

It is vain and almost pitiful to draw such a comparison, but I also experienced that same feeling later that night. I arrived at the theater early, well over an hour before the 8 p.m. start. I got my ticket from the box office.

But then instead of walking back out of the theater and returning at show time, I was a naughty boy. As fate had it, the doors leading to the stage and seating area were open and I could hear that Kottke was conducting his sound check. I walked in and sat at a table that was situated behind the seating and also shielded from the stage. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there but I could not leave. I could not pass up the opportunity of having this intimate, albeit hidden, encounter with the “Master.”

Kottke’s baritone voice was going through a long series of intonations and his guitar was crisply picked as he tested the sound system. His questions and feedback to the sound man were warm, relaxed, down-to-earth and friendly. No conceited ill-mannered star arrogance at work here.

Despite being and knowing that he is at the apex of his profession, his self-deference is at the forefront of his persona (still another line that could be added to his Dos Equis commercial).

I leaned back in my chair and looked up as I listened to my musical idol prepare for that night’s program, and had a feeling akin to the navigator. Certainly not as long or probably as acute, but the stars had momentarily and veritably aligned.

It would be the seventh and eighth time I was going to see Kottke perform live, and although it sounds trite, he really does get better and better every time.

During Saturday’s show, as had happened on two other occasions, tears filled my eyes when he played a particular song. This time it was Pete Seeger’s “Living in the Country” (previously “The Brain of the Purple Mountain” and “Ojo” had produced the same reaction).

Kottke’s brilliance and finesse with music also often has the effect of producing simultaneous feelings of profound joy and sadness when listening to his works. Hard to explain but true.

The intimate theater held about 300 seats, and having been perched in Row B each night, I took several longs gazes back and up upon the audience before the performances started. I could be wrong and could have missed a face or two, but I did not recognize another individual as having attended both nights, besides me.

At one point during the Saturday show, while in the middle of a story, he alluded to something he had said on Friday: He exclaimed, “As I mentioned last night,” and as he said it, he looked me directly in the eye. Now, it may have been pure coincidence, he must look directly at a dozen people throughout the night during his musings, and maybe he could not really see anyone in the crowd clearly. But, I would like to think he really did recognize me and was acknowledging the fact that I was indeed there the night before and he knew it. After all, his stage presence is penetrating and of course he is truly one of the most remarkable men alive.

Take note Dos Equis.