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Leo Kottke is always unplugged

Leo Kottke is always unplugged leo-color.jpg
Master acoustic guitarist to play at Clark Art Institute benefit on Feb. 28 By Debbie Gardner PRIME Editor You might recognize the name from his frequent appearances on the popular National Public Radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion." But Leo Kottke is far more than just an entertaining radio show guest. For over 30 years, this finger-picking acoustic musician has brought a new dimension to guitar music, smoothly blending jazz, blues and classical sounds with monologues reflecting his own unique take on the world. He's shared the studio and stage with everyone from Lyle Lovett to John Fahey, T- Bone Burnett to Paco de Lucia, John Williams and Joe Pass and now, this music legend will be making two appearances in Western Massachusetts this February. On Feb. 25 and 26 Kottke will be at the Iron Horse in Northampton as a part of the music hall's 30th anniversary celebration. On the 28th at 8 p.m. he'll take the stage at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, on the campus of Williams College in Williamstown, MA in a special benefit concert for the museum. Tickets to the Clark concert are priced at $28 for the general public, $25 for museum members and students, and are availabe in one of three ways: online at, by calling 413-458-0524 or by stopping by the Clark's museum shop in person during business hours. The Clark is located at 225 South St. in Williamstown, MA. The galleries are open Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Admission is free Nov.-May. PRIME talks with Leo Kottke In conjunction with the Clark concert, PRIME was privileged to secure a pre-show email interview with Kottke. We're grateful to Sarah Hoffman from the marketing department at the Clark for making the interview happen. PRIME: What can your fans expect to hear at the performance at the Clark? Leo: I never really know what I'll be doing when I walk on. It's better not to know. I'm more at home on stage than I am anywhere else, and probably no one "plans" how to be at home. Maybe Dick Cheney does. PRIME: Will your concert include old favorites? Newer material? Any surprises? Leo: Could be all of these. PRIME: Do you alter your set for a venue such as the Clark, which is in a college setting, as opposed to a performance at a music hall, such as the Iron Horse in Northampton ( where I understand you are appearing just prior to the Clark performance). Leo: Naw. I just go out and follow my nose. It's less likely I'll bite the head off a chicken at the Iron Horse. But there is one thing about playing colleges: the audiences are kind of stranded ... the fundamental reality of being at school. That fact moves things a little differently. Hard to say how, though. But I've played three prison jobs and there is a distinct similarity between a prison crowd and a college crowd. (I went to school to be a schoolteacher, by the way.) PRIME: I've done some background research on your career, and understand that you've had to overcome some obstacles in your career, not the least of which has been a change in your signature picking style brought on by tendon problems in your hand. I know my boomer readers will be interested in knowing how you coped, adapted, and obviously thrived despite the difficulties. Do you have any advice for them? Leo: I have no advice. Any time I've given advice I've usually changed my mind. And I really haven't overcome anything. I don't think anyone does. How would someone do that? Something else is going on, which is almost never what any human wants, but it works just fine. Well, maybe not fine but what's the alternative? The hard part is giving up properly, dropping the ball. Once you learn how to do that ... Well, you've learned how to do that. And it's good. I much prefer my playing now to what it was before I had the tendonitis. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm stupidly lucky: I fell into and through the guitar when I was a boy and that gave me what turned out to be my life. I could lose the job, the performing, but I'd be dogmeat if I couldn't sit in a room and play. I don't want to be that attached to what is only an object, but I am. Someday I'll lose it and there will be nothing I can do about it. I won't overcome, I'll be squashed. If I have an interest in being alive, I can enjoy something else. Maybe. Music teaches you how to do that, including the maybe. You will hit a patch when you're playing that's all black ice, you're upside down in mid-air and you don't even know what year it is anymore, all in one nanosecond... And you know that what's coming is more black ice, humiliation and damage. It's gruesome. So you do the wrong thing, you try to overcome: you'll grab for a handhold, try to arrange yourself for the fall, prepare, look for a way out, and really really screw yourself up; so later, or finally, after too much black ice and too much misery, you go ahead and fall. Splat. It's your turn. Hit me. You do it with some grace, but it's the kind of grace you have when you put your head in the guillotine. Not bad, all in all. And, musically, forget the guillotine, it can actually sound good. Basically, we can only make things worse when we try. So stop trying, but participate ... Which sounds suspiciously like advice. I will regret all this tomorrow and blame you for it. PRIME: Speaking of adapting, it's clear that the music industry has changed radically since you started performing 30 years ago. How have you had to repackage yourself to continue to reach your audience? Leo: It was changing radically when I joined up. If I was ever packaged it was the label doing that. I'm not good at "presenting" myself. One thing seems central: enjoying it. I have to enjoy it. If I don't who will? And how would I feel if they did and I didn't? I think Dante wrote about that. PRIME: What new ways are you using to reach your audience, and grow your listenership? Leo: I just play. Like Paul McCartney said, we're supposed to play. It's a great job. PRIME: What's next for Leo Kottke? Leo: I meet with a lawyer and I go back on the road. I'm never off of it for very long. The lawyer stays home.