Here's how messed up I am.
On March 10 of this year, I went to see Leo Kottke play at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. And, of course, I didn't write about it. I didn't do anything before or after the show. I just went and saw him play and that was it.
The only reason why I put things on the Internet is to share experiences and enhance some understanding of why we need to elevate art of any kind. I have several blogs embedded here that are designed to draw people in so that they can read about whatever they want and take away whatever they like. So, up front, I apologize for not sharing this experience.
It was selfish of me to go watch Leo play and then not say something about it. I don't know why I didn't put something out at the time, but here goes.
The Birchmere is a great venue for music. The thing is, you're not there just to see a show. You're there to sit at tables and have something to eat and drink and then you can watch the show. I did this years ago in Annapolis at the Ram's Head when I saw the Church--silly me, I thought I was going to watch a band. Nope, I was going to eat the nachos and have a beverage and then watch them play.
And that's what I did at the Birchmere. I drove down to Alexandria and I found the venue and then I somehow killed four or five hours because that's how stupid I am--I had no idea it would be barely any hassle at all to go down there. I did do something smart--I got in line to get my pass to get into the show and that meant that I was near the front. By the time they seated us, I was in the front row--totally worth it, of course. I was seated right in front, mere feet from the stage, and I had my nachos and my beverage and that meant killing another hour or so.
Was it worth it to sit and wait for hours and hours? Of course it was. For people who have seen Leo, bear with me--this was all new to me. I am not that sophisticated because this was literally the first music show I had attended in seven or eight years.
Leo has no pretensions, and virtually no gear. They put a regular chair up there and they run one lead to the house sound system. That's the lead for his guitar. They set up a microphone. They have a stand there for each guitar. Leo won't leave his guitars out there before the show--he keeps his Taylor 6 and 12 strings with him at all times, and who wouldn't? These are the best guitars on the whole freaking planet. Do you have six or seven thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket? That might get you a top of the line Taylor. I would envision him going to the bathroom with them but that would be ridiculous. He doesn't have straps on them. He walks out with two guitars in his hands and he might nod or raise one of them up to acknowledge the thunderous applause of people who have seen him eight, nine, or ten or more times already. For a newbie like me, this was a strange way to start a show. This is definitely not what you expect of someone who has been doing this for over forty years. He has stripped away every single unnecessary thing and he tunes up right in front of everyone because it wouldn't make sense to switch between seven or eight different guitars.
Leo sits down, keeps one of the guitars on him at all times, and puts the other one down. He plugs himself in and starts playing. There are no roadies, just a sound person in the back. If you look at the photo above, it's just about when he sat down to start playing. He is in constant motion because he moves his feet a lot, so that when he plays, everything is balanced there on his lap. The sound was pristine and clear, as well amplified as anything I've ever heard. It's all in the guitar, of course, and he played instrumentals as his opening numbers. He speaks assuredly, makes jokes, tells stories, and then he feels out the rest of the set. He tells you where he's going and you don't mind the interruptions or the weird fellow who says the same three or four things until Leo, exasperated, reminds everyone that he's the show.
He alluded to being a trombone player. He's the most gifted guitar player of his generation. He sifts through his memory, bringing out tunes and runs and playing song after song. Ninety minutes disappears--no matter how long I had to wait, the show itself was one pleasurable experience.
It's impossible to explain how good Leo is with a guitar. Above all else, the lack of structure to the show means that you get to experience his taste in playing. He is making choices left and right and the show flows through happy accidents and deliberate stops. He is an American master at his craft, one of the finest ever. Expert finger picking and technique, refined for decades and demonstrated for all.
It was absolutely masterful and magical at the same time to watch him play. He brought out songs, ran around with them, and you could see his eyes darting around, looking for the next song to play. I'm hooked. I hope I get to see him again. If he's ever near you, go. It'll leave you dumbstruck for months, and you'll end up fumbling through a review just like this. Really, he's that good and he's entirely about that ninety minutes or so of trying to figure out what to play next. So many musicians never find the courage to abandon everything and just take one or two instruments out and play them for people. There is an entire circuit out there that would give them a forum to go and play if they could just abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and go do what they know and love.
Leo figured that out a long time ago. He just goes out and plays. He takes a few shows here and a few shows there and he just does his thing. And his thing is the best hour and a half you can imagine.