Over the course of his career, Leo Kottke has released more than forty albums: twenty-one solo, two collaborations, four live, four film soundtracks, and ten compilations. That level of productivity puts him in a class with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and very few others.
And yet if you haven’t heard of him, you’re in good company. A 2009 Pittsburgh Tribune profile of Kottke explains that he “is not the most famous guitarist… he’s not flashy or flamboyant, and his profile is such that if he attended the Grammy Awards, he’d probably go unnoticed.” While he has recently attracted increased attention because of his collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, Kottke remains one of the guitar world’s best-kept (relative) secrets. He is a prime example of an artist whose reputation lags behind his considerable talent and seemingly-infinite output.
Kottke falls somewhere along the blues spectrum, but has traversed many styles – a kind of restlessness which parallels his dropping out of college to hitchhike around the country, wandering and busking. His playing is often carried by driving, pulsating rhythms which seem to open up space inside the blazingly fast notes for his melodic and harmonic exploration. In this way he distorts the listener’s perception of time – the notes fly by at mach speed even as they cluster like crazed electrons into melodic ideas which seem to linger just long enough to imprint themselves into memory.
Now, Kottke would probably find that analysis absurd, and maybe it is. But whatever it is about his music that’s so alluring, here he brings it to The Byrds’ Eight Miles High, originally recognizable by its multi-part folk-rock harmonies. Kottke’s voice, the sound of which a friend of his likened to “geese farts on a muggy day” – a description he subtly endorsed – takes it somewhere entirely different, but no less interesting.