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Jeff Moehlis: Leo Kottke Goes with the Flow, With or Without Gnu Challenges

Acoustic guitarist returns to Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre for Friday performance

Leo Kottke is an extraordinary acoustic guitar player, with a style that draws on folk, blues and jazz, but comes together in a way all his own.

His musical career took off with his 1969 album 6 and 12 String Guitar, and since then he has released dozens of albums and entertained countless audiences with his guitar prowess, singing and hilarious stories between songs. Kottke, who has been nominated for two Grammy awards, will play at the Lobero Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday. Click here to purchase tickets online.

The following is an excerpt from a phone interview. Click here for the full interview.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming concert in Santa Barbara?

Leo Kottke: I never really know. It’s two guitars, and whatever comes next. I’ve learned that it’s best not to plan. If you get a solo act up there and he’s following a setlist, you can smell it from a mile away. I just wing it.

JM: I’ve seen you at various venues. I’m curious, what are some of the strangest venues where you’ve played? I remember when I saw you at a show, I think it was at a fair, between songs you mentioned that you had played a show where you looked over and an emu was looking at you.

LK: (Laughs) It was actually not an emu, it was a gnu. G-n-u. But I have stood eye to eye with an emu, and you don’t want to do that. They’re taller than you are. I’m 6 feet, and they’re nasty. Well, you know they have the potential, for one thing, they could disembowel you with a flick of their wrist.

But the gnu, yeah, that was the first zoo I ever played, and it was one of the first zoos to do this. They all do it now, to put on concerts. I was in Oklahoma City, and I pretty much forgot where I was, and fell into the music, and find myself eye to eye ... well, I was a little higher up than the gnu. To be looking at one in the middle of going to the next tune, it was a shock. I thought we had an understanding, too. I thought maybe there was a little communication going on, but I think that’s delusional.

But as far as strange places to play. There are a few I can’t mention actually, because it doesn’t ring right. There is one ... maybe it will come to me as we go along.

JM: Can I ask you reflect on the album that I guess launched your career, the 6 and 12 String Guitar album that was released more than 40 years ago?

LK: Well, it took, you know. And that was a real surprise. I had an idea in my head at the time. That came out in 1969, and I’d been performing sporadically since about ‘65. My first job was in ‘64. I had sent a tape to John (Fahey), and very slowly we got to the point where I made the recording. I wasn’t interested in going on the road, I thought I was going to get an ordinary day job. I was, and I still am, happy with a guitar without having a job behind it. It just clicked. There was kind of a process to it that, step by step, came into play. It was just interesting how it happened.

The record still sells, and I still play some of that material. But the thing that’s important to me about it is mostly that that’s how John and I got together. I went out to meet John, and we played three jobs together, and I spent a lot of time with him back then. We got to be friends. He was a very interesting guy, very highly educated. He was one of those self starters, and went his own way all the time. So anything about that record is wrapped up with what I know about John and the stuff that we did. We played jobs off and on over time after that, but it gave me my whole adult life really. And that’s due to John putting the thing out. Nobody else would have bothered. And it did so well that I had to do another one, and everything just sort of brought me to talking to you on the phone today.

JM: This is a question about your songwriting approach in the context of a specific song. My favorite album by you is Guitar Music, and there is “Side One Suite” on that is a multipart song. How did that come together?

LK: How I wrote the “Suite,” I couldn’t even tell you. All the tunes just sort of come and get me. If it doesn’t take, I don’t force it.

JM: Another of my favorites is the album after that, Time Step, which was a bit of a change in direction.

LK: Emmylou (Harris) came in and did some harmonies with me, and that was wonderful. On one of them she said, “This is my favorite song.” It was a Lefty Frizzell tune “Saginaw, Michigan.” She went in and did these harmonies. She did two voices. It really needed something, and she was it, as it turned out. Everybody was very happy with it, and I was too effusive and probably embarrassed her, but I said, “How did you do that? It really changed everything.” And she said, “Well, when you go flat I go with you, just not as far.” It was a great lesson, and one of this first that I got in what singing was really about.

JM: We’re very happy that you pass through the Santa Barbara area quite often, it seems. I hope you continue to do that.

LK: I do, too. I’ve been allowed into the sound stream. It’s the first thing you notice when it takes off. You’re walking on stages that people you love have walked on, too. It’s a great, great feeling to be part of all this.

The Lobero is one of my favorite theaters, by the way. It’s not one of the strangest, but it’s definitely one of the finest.

Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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