Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#857 in the Series) is Leo Kottke, Time Step
Leo Kottke is one of my favorite fingerstyle guitar players. He is one of those players that the music reveals its complexity slowly. It often takes me multiple listens just to realize the intricacies and subtleness of a song. I realized how great his playing was while listening to a live performance and discovering that there was only one guitar being played. His ability to play multiple melody lines at once was just unbelievable to me. Slap on top of that his quirky sense of humor, he keeps me coming back for more.
My discovery of Leo Kottke happened when I was thumbing through a friend’s record collection. There were six or seven albums by this guy. To me they all looked like some kind of boring, run of the mill, acoustic albums. I decided to look at one anyway. In the liner notes there was someone describing his first time he listened to Kottke. The only line I remember reading was “How did he #!@$! do that!” Although he didn’t say fudge. That line was enough for me to at least give this guy a try. I’m so glad I did because I didn’t really listen to this kind of music. It allowed me to realize how exciting this music could be. That you can receive exhilaration from an acoustic guitar (or any other instrument for that matter) was a learning experience. Before I listened to Leo, exciting music had to be music turned up to 11.
As most people from the Southwest know if you set foot in one of our states we like to claim that you are “from” that state. So of course I consider Kottke a fellow Oklahoman. Although he was born in Georgia, he spent some of his formative years here in Muskogee. While here, he learned to play trombone before turning to the guitar. His playing style is a kind of a folk-jazz syncopated fusion. The initial picking style employed by Kottke was aggressive and created enough stress to give him tendonitis in the early 80’s. His picking changed to more of a classical style after his recovery.
There are some other albums by Kottke that showcase his technical prowess a little more. Time Step is an excellent introduction to his fingerpicking style while maintaining a pop sensibility. I find it is always easier to ease into an artist’s style rather than just throw in some incredible piece that might not be fully appreciated. If I’m going to introduce someone to Jeff Beck, I’m not going to recommend Blow by Blow first.
An often quoted line of Leo’s was the description of his vocals sounding like “geese farts on a muggy day.” Perhaps this is part of the reason that a bulk of his material is instrumental. With Time Step this isn’t the case. Over half of the songs contain vocals. He did employ the help of one Emmylou Harris for backing vocals on quite a few songs. Albert Lee (who has too many accolades to mention) also makes an appearance on “Starving” and my favorite from the album “Julie’s House.”
Some of Kottke’s best vocal songs are on this album. Even though Kottke won’t be making the list for greatest vocalist, I really enjoy his singing. The sound is very Americana and natural. More palatable than Dylan, the worst complaint I can think of is that it sounds plain. Although I’ve never heard a goose fart so his self-description may be accurate. The harmonizing between Emmylou and Leo on this album can still give me goosebumps. My favorite song to showcase of Kottke’s guitar work on this album is “Mr. Fonebone.” Once I realized that he was the only person playing on the song, I had to go back and listen to it again. I just couldn’t figure out how he did that.
This was the first album that T-Bone Burnett produced for Kottke. I can think of only two producers that I know I will like their work with any artist, T-Bone Burnett and Tom Dowd. Burnett has this uncanny ability to capture the emotion in a song. I come back to Time Step a lot. There is a good balance between guitar prowess and some catchy sing-a-longs like “Rings” and “Julie’s House.” This was also the last album that used Kottke’s original picking style. When he returned to recording three years later as a guest on The Blind Leading the Naked by The Violent Femmes, he was using the classical style picking.
Leo Kottke is a musician that everyone should give a try. Especially if you haven’t listened to many fingerstyle guitar players, Kottke is a great place to start. With over 20 albums to choose from it can keep you busy for a while. He provided one of the best concerts I have ever seen. It was Just a man and his guitar with a world of sound. What I love about listening to Time Step or any Kottke album is to sit back and think “Just how did he do that?”
– Jay Kretchmar, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma USA
- “Running All Night Long” – 2:44
- “The Bungle Party” – 3:00
- “Rings” – 2:53
- “Mr. Fonebone” – 2:05
- “Julie’s House” – 3:24
- “Memories are Made of This – 2:38
- “Saginaw, Michigan” – 3:37
- “I’ll Break Out Again” – 3:26
- “The Wrong Track” – 2:44
- “Starving” – 2:55
- “Here Comes That Rainbow Again” – 3:11
- Leo Kottke – acoustic guitar, vocals
- David Kemper – drums
- David Miner – bass
- Albert Lee – guitar on “Starving” and “Julies House”, background vocals
- Emmylou Harris – background vocals
- Don Heffington – drums and percussion on “The Wrong Track”
- Dennis Keely – percussion on “The Bungle Party” and “Running All Night Long”
Here are some highlights off the album on a playlist