Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon, Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA- 11/6
“Welcome to Mike and Leo’s hootenanny!” That was the usher’s cheerfully unexpected greeting as we took our balcony seats in Harvard’s historic Sanders Theatre for what indeed turned into a foot-happy hoe-down between legendary guitar finger-picker, Leo Kottke, and his unassuming ace on bass, Mike Gordon.
Seated side-by-side at center stage, the new duo kicked off the third show in their mini-tour with a fine pair of table-setting instrumentals. Kottke’s intricate picking was somewhat overwhelmed by the volume of Gordon’s bass at the outset, but an adjustment was made and the acoustics soon improved dramatically.
“The Collins Missile,” a kooky but catchy song from the pair’s recent Clone album featured Gordon smoothly handling the off-kilter lyrics about an eagerly awaited, but poorly constructed mail-order rocket. At song’s end Kottke humorously apologized for getting tangled up halfway through, and to set things right he replayed his part properly. Gordon laughed and suggested they finish the show by playing their parts separately.
That would have been a shame, as their guitar playing merged in spectacular fashion on the next song, “Clone.” Chemistry was evident as Kottke and Gordon grew fully absorbed in the song’s rhythmic intricacies, offering a sublime display of interlocking musicianship. Kottke’s rapid-fire twelve-string meshed beautifully with Gordon’s burrowing bass, as the two toyed joyfully with the song’s driving melody.
Kottke and Gordon continued to display a relaxed and musically telepathic spirit throughout their ninety-minute performance. While neither artist is considered a great singer, their vocal efforts were always clear and warm sounding, unforced and natural. An anonymous critic at Amazon.com (a “Music Fan from Tulsa, OK”) contends the vocals on Clone “sound like the Grateful Dead practicing Gilbert and Sullivan in a decompression chamber.” That would have been something to hear, but alas, the warm wood-beam acoustics of Sanders Theatre must have thwarted the effect.
All humor and vocals aside, it was the duo’s sophisticated fluency on guitar that really transported the songs and the audience. The two musicians expressed their gratitude for the small miracle of having fallen in together. Gordon recalled how just last year he’d driven at high speed through a snowstorm from out of state to catch a Kottke performance at Sanders Theatre. “The seats were really good, too,” he noted, “right over there by the soundboard.” He paused for a beat and added, “I’ve got a much better seat tonight.”
No Leo Kottke performance would be complete without some charmingly lame yarn-spinning and this show was no slouch. Gordon held up his end well, enlightening the audience with some offbeat background on his good friend, Joe Linitz, who has devised some unorthodox personal safety precautions. “Joe always wears goggles when he’s driving,” Gordon explained, “so that when the airbag explodes, it won’t injure his eyes.” This tidbit prompted Kottke to admit he wears “tinted earplugs” while driving, and for much the same reason, to protect his sensitive ears from the loud bang of a potential airbag detonation. This innocent precaution, however, once nearly cost him his life, when he accelerated into an intersection, oblivious to the siren wail of an onrushing ambulance.
All of which served to set up “Car Carrier Blues,” a standout Gordon/Linitz composition that combined a hypnotic groove with some insidiously paranoid lyrics. Put it this way, you won’t want to be stuck in traffic behind one of those big car-hauling rigs anytime soon. “Who put the chains on? / Looks like they’re on too loose / I don’t like driving / Take a train if I could choose / Car up there sliding”
While the show naturally leaned heavily toward the duo’s new material, several nuggets were also pulled from Kottke’s impressive back catalog, most notably a rousing rendition of “Rings” and a majestic take on the Byrds classic, “Eight Miles High.” The many loyal Phish fans in attendance were treated to “Ya Mar,” an orphaned song by The Mustangs that Phish has lovingly adopted.