‘Tis the Season for Holiday musical traditions! Try as one might, it’s hard to get to all of them. Brian Setzer’s Christmas show, The New Standards, Horton Heat’s Holiday Hay Ride or Mannheim Steamroller. One that seems to have been going on longer than any of the others is Leo Kotke at The Guthrie.
Walking into the Wurtele Thrust stage, I was immediately taken with the absolutely gorgeous set for A Christmas Carol (talk about another long time Twin Cities holiday tradition!). Kotke showing up at the end of the year has never been about Christmas carols, per se. But it marks the beginning of the season. The cobbled street, frosted window and snow piles around the gaslights made for the perfect frame.
The evening began with singer/songwriter James McMurtry. I recall seeing him in the old Guthrie space probably 25 years ago. The hair remained long; the wire rimmed glasses still smacked of hippier times. He’d aged better than I. The crowd greeted him warmly like a returning friend. And then the audience settled in and went dead silent. You could hear a pin drop. When he hit that first guitar string the phenomenal acoustics of the space took center stage. Tonight was a night to listen. To hear every single note and every single word.
His forty five minute set flew by. He carved out little stories of small towns, flawed lives and times gone. If there is another writer better able to draw a character or set a scene, I don’t know him or her. The attention to detail, the ability to plum those little disappointments, the way in which he reflects our own feeble attempts to find that perfect family or that well ordered personal space is the hallmark of a McMurtry song.
It is not about being dragged down. Rather, there’s something that mixes melancholy with the indomitable human spirit. The characters in the songs, often autobiographical, are survivors. They struggle, yes. At the same time they find a way to keep going.
There is always a commentary or a lesson buried in the story. It might be personal. It might be socio-political. But McMurtry is smart and he’s subtle. The song that seemed to best incorporate it all was Long Island Sound. A middle aged man drives toward the city, caught in rush hour traffic and wonders about whatever happened to a long lost love. He ponders the lives of those living in the crumbling tenements. He tries to justify a steady job and 401k as a mark of success. He reflects on his children growing up so different from his own roots. The chorus is all McMurtry. He takes a deep breath, commits to continuing and sings: “These are the best days. Y’all put your money away. I’ve got the round.”
Kotke arrived to a raucous welcome. He’s one of us. While originally hailing from Athens, GA, the young Leo settled on the West Bank during a time that saw the Cedar neighborhood bustling with the likes of Bob Dylan and Spider John Koerner. Unlike those two, his ticket was his ability to play his guitar. The decision to write lyrics and sing was more the insistence of the record companies who knew they had a special talent. He just didn’t fit in any easily definable marketing slot.
The man is a virtual orchestra with a 12 string. As he has aged, some of the focus has shifted from the pure pyrotechnic to something more akin to musing. This is not to say he’s lost any chops. On a couple of songs I heard audience members turn to friends and say: “Wow!” Or: “Man, he’s still got it!”
But nowadays his tunes seem more to wander and explore the soundscape. The very idea of any particular tune being played the same note for note on any given night seems far fetched. He literally searches for, ultimately finds and delivers the bending melodies that define his style. It’s a bit like watching a master painter stretch his canvas, apply some some broad strokes and then go to work. Sometimes you don’t see what he’s doing until that section of the canvas is done. Then it makes you smile and realize you see the world in a different way than the artist. Or in this case, hear the universe in a different way.
As much as McMurtry tells his stories through his songs and has little to say in terms of introduction or explanation, Kotke is the opposite. Most of his songs have no lyrics. But every song has a story. About midway through his nearly 90 minute set it struck me how much he reminded me of Mark Twain. A good portion of the evening was stories and tall tales.
A Kotke tale usually falls squarely in the genre of the shaggy dog story. An anecdote segues into some offshoot, which then dives down some seemingly unrelated rabbit hole. Whether he decides to eventually return to the original point is unknown. But it doesn’t matter because the commentary and reflections are invariably droll, self deprecating, personal and very humorous. It’s been a long winding road. And like Mark Twain, half the reason to be there was to enjoy the humor in the patter.
Leo Kotke seems the kind of guy who doesn’t put much stock in structure. After more than 40 years of touring and recording he’s earned the right to pretty much do whatever he wants on any given night. His playing is world class. The nearest comparison as a player seems to me Bruce Cockburn. Another guy who is all about the groove and is able to coax bass parts, harmonies and dueling lead lines from a single guitar. The stories and reflections are rich, varied and unpredictable. How they get mixed and presented is anybody’s guess. That’s part of the appeal.
Last night was about comfort. He’s like that understated friend you see too infrequently. Who shares stories late into the night, never complaining, never asking for any kind of special consideration. Kotke seems to embody all the positive qualities the 1100 people packed into The Guthrie like to think about as comprising Minnesota Nice. Awesomely talented and resolutely resistant to showing off.
Right down to the end of the show. He looked up from his chair and announced: “That song was the end of the main show, folks. Now I’ll do the encore. That way we can all go home at the same time.” Based on the happy smiles all around as people exited the venue, we’ll all come back again next year at the same time as well.