It took a little puzzling, but we finally determined that the last time we caught up to Leo Kottke was late 2002, when he and Mike Gordon paired up for a duo gig at the Boulder Theater.
Kind of an odd night — a typically subdued sprinkling of Leo fans awash in a swell of ardent Phaithful, maybe the biggest crowd Kottke had ever played to in Boulder. And the set was fun — mostly tight, at turns symbiotic, ruthlessly precise and rapturously weird.
“Yeah, it was an education, and it still is,” Kotke recalls of his erstwhile duo project with Gordon. “I mean, it’s so much fun I hardly look up.”
Kottke concedes that balancing his six and 12-string acoustics to Gordon’s planet-eating bass tone is still a challenge; hearing damage from many years ago renders the guitarist hypersensitive to volume extremes, while Gordon has been trained to project electric bass into soccer stadiums. Recalls Kottke of their Red Rocks gig a few years ago:
“I mean, he bent over backwards to play with me, because I can’t handle level and I’m scared to death of monitors. He just had his amp, which for him was at a whisper, and for me was at the edges of too loud, and it was a little tough. … I remember we played in Austin, and we were exactly a beat and a half off of each other. I mean, we were locked right in, we were real tight, but we were off. To listen to it was really weird. Something was right, but something was … wrong. We couldn’t quite figure it out. But at Red Rocks … heh, it was pretty obvious.”
We reminded Kottke, an erstwhile technology skeptic, that there was a pretty good chance that someone caught the whole thing and hoisted a video up on YouTube. Recalling an interview we did years ago recounting his tales of unease making his first DVD Home and Away — in a controlled setting with video professionals — we couldn’t help but ask if he found being memorialized, unaware, on camera phones and through ancient and long-forgotten film archive, unexpectedly cringe-worthy?
Kottke laughed. “Oh yeah, I definitely do. It’s a little like visiting your own funeral, looking down on who you were. It’s really a trip.
“And it started because someone who sells me coffee here in Minneapolis just started treating me entirely differently, and I noticed it. I couldn’t figure it out — she seemed happy. Not that I drove her to despair every time I ordered a cup of coffee, but there was a big difference. So I asked her, and she said she’d seen something on YouTube. So I went back, and it was really the first time I took a look at it — I had stayed away from it, it just gave me the willies — and what she saw was a guy she had never met, who isn’t here anymore. It was me in my early 20s, playing one of the tunes from that first Tacoma record. It really, really threw me for a loop.
“And the first thing I thought was, well if I’m on there, I bet Bill Evans is in here somewhere. And off I went. And man, there’s some wonderful shit out there. It’s one of the few things I can say I really like about the digital revolution, the way YouTube has brought up these things that would have gone off into oblivion.”
Kottke may derive some grudging appreciation for YouTube because, in a sense, it has a memory that can rival his own. Though maybe a little poorer, unframed by 12-string Appalachian fantasias.
But if YouTube can capture a moment, it cannot capture context, nor irony, nor the gentle absurdities of This Life. Nor the distance traveled.
“I remember the first real studio I walked into,” Kottke says. “I was with my manager, who had been recommended to me by John Fahey, and his partner, a guy named Seth.
“Delbert [McClinton] and Glen [Clark] were putting some vocal on some tracks. That was the night I met T Bone [Burnett] the first time; he was producing it. And the sound came up and it was just so goddamn good, I said, ‘I quit. I do not belong in this job.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“When we were done, we walked out to the street, and Seth looked in the back of my red Valiant that I had driven out from Minneapolis, and he saw my home haircutting kit in the back. And he turned to Denny [Bruce, ] and said, ‘I don’t think this guy is too hip.’ And he quit on the spot. And that was the last I saw of Seth.
“And Seth was right, I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. But it was fun, and they still let me get away with it.”
On the Bill: Leo Kottke plays the Boulder Theater on Friday, Jan 27. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $31. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.