Kottke's TV Show No Joke, It's a Treat

Associated Press

Would anyone but Leo Kottke walk across a parking lot with a 6-year-old child and suddenly be moved to broach the subject of the birds and the bees?

Pausing to lean on a car bumper, Kottke said to his son: "Joe, don't you ever wonder where you came from? How all these people got here? Where I came from?"

His son wondered wearily, "Dad, is this going to be another one of your jokes?"

It's often hard to tell whether Kottke is about to produce, after tortured rambling, some great truth--or just another of his jokes.

Kottke's hourlong PBS special, fortunately, is a treat, both for Kottke's amazing musicianship and for his gentle, intelligent wit that seems to come from just across the kitchen table, not from up on stage in front of a couple thousand strangers.

"Leo Kottke: Home & Away" will be shown Saturday at 11 p.m. on Orange County Public Broadcasting System station KOCE Channel 50.

Perhaps there is something in the water out there in Minnesota that produces performers who tell engaging but circuitous and often-surreal stories just about anything.

Garrison Keillor turned that ability into a storied art form, as well as a lucrative radio and book career. Kottke, who was often a guest on Keillor's radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," is more upbeat than Keillor, kind of like an aging kid brother who veered off temporarily into Zen Buddhism somewhere back down the line.

Kottke's meandering stories are a nice juxtaposition to his mind-bendingly intricate instrumentals. His unique style is a fusion of country, jazz and folk influences.

In the PBS show, he also offers up vocal renditions of such classics as the Ed Reeves-Alex Harvey love song "Ring" and Paul Siebel's haunting "Louise." Chet Atkins and Doc Watson appear for a brief but rousing bluegrass jam.

The special was produced and directed by Mary Perillo, who has produced films for PBS's performance-art series "Alive From Off Center."

Interspersed with elegantly spare concert scenes are video vignettes of Kottke poking around a guitar store in Nashville, driving his car, shopping--"I keep lookin' for boots," he said, examining a display of the cowboy variety, "but they're all pointy"--and musing about the worth of motorboats--while sitting in his own leaf-covered small craft, up on blocks in his yard.

The concert footage was filmed in Toronto. After the first number, Kottke cheerfully said to the rapt audience, "It's really necessary by this time in the set for me to speak." He launched a complex exposition on his tendency earlier in his 20-year stage career to become too involved in his own performance: He used to drool on his guitar. Finally, he determined that this chagrined the audience, so he reformed.

He can be funny and deep at the same time. Driving across a sun-bathed Minnesota landscape and chatting with the camera, Kottke recalled a philosopher's notion that the creation of art has to begin with a lie.

He recounted how his two young children, squabbling in the back seat of the car, were in fact displaying a propensity for a mystically defined notion of art. In the ruckus, Sarah let out a scream and told her father that Joe had stuck his thumb in her eye. "I didn't know that was your face," Joe said.

"My heart swelled with pride," Kottke said, "because I knew I had an artist in the back seat."

Kottke even took the camera into his basement, where "bad" guitars are left to think about what they have done. He showed off an ancient, oft-repaired old buzzard of an instrument that had been smashed in a car wreck, restitched, stepped on, held together with tape, reconstructed with a new 28-inch neck, then sawed off so it would fit in a regulation-size case, leaving it with 10 strings instead of 12.

"Despite all that," Kottke said gently, "I'm still stirred by this instrument."

And so is everybody else.

"Leo Kottke: Home & Away" will be shown Saturday at 11 p.m. on KOCE, Channel 50.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World