Numbers don’t mean much to Leo Kottke, Minnesota’s forever guitar hero, until he starts to think about them.
For example, this year would have marked his 40th annual Thanksgiving-time Twin Cities concert if not for COVID-19.
“The 40th year? I have no calendar recall,” said Kottke. “It’s what Minneapolis/St. Paul is for me [concert-wise]. I hate to think of these dark stages. These stages are irreplaceable.”
He threw out another number — 52. Because, before the current pandemic, never in the past 52 years had the road warrior been in one place longer than two months.
“I’ve fantasized what it must be like to be in one place again,” said Kottke, who settled in Minnesota in the 1960s after attending St. Cloud State University. “And I’m finding out that I had no idea how many airports I was carrying around on my back.”
So these days Kottke spends a lot of time in his Minneapolis apartment playing the instrument that made him world-famous. In fact, he picks up a guitar before he even gets out of bed. He also reads books and listens to podcasts, especially about books. But a guitar is never far away. “If I can’t see the guitar, I don’t feel right. Let alone playing it.”
Here’s another number — 15. That’s how many years have passed between albums for Kottke, who is finally celebrating a new one, “Noon,” with collaborator Mike Gordon.
The Minnesotan, who was inducted in the Guitar Player Hall of Fame in 1978, didn’t even think he’d be making albums anymore even though he released more than 30 (including live records and soundtracks) between 1969 and 2005. But Gordon, the Phish bassist who had made two previous albums with Kottke, never gave up.
“There was still some business for us to conduct,” Gordon said last weekend from his Vermont home. “So we talked about it for 10 years and, for about four or five years, we worked on it — slowly.”
“It all revolves around friendship,” said Kottke, who traveled to Vermont, New Orleans and Burbank, Calif., for the sessions.
“We just enjoy each other’s company and creativity,” said Gordon, who has done two duo tours with Kottke. “We have a really special rapport.”
They are opposites, though. “Leo is relentlessly reclusive,” said the bassist, 20 years his junior. “I always like to be around people. At Phish shows, I’d take a golf cart out and meet the fans.”
They’re opposites when it comes to concertizing, too. Kottke has performed thousands of gigs solo. Gordon has played nearly 2,000 gigs in one band or another.
“We are both outside of our comfort zones when we’re playing together,” Gordon pointed out. Yet, they relish the risk-taking and the collaboration.
For “Noon,” Gordon wrote three songs, and Kottke penned six tunes (including “From the Cradle to the Grave,” which he first recorded in 1972). And they cover the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (Kottke was never happy with the version he released in 1971) and Prince’s “Alphabet St.” (Gordon always loved the groove, though they give it a Grateful Dead-like treatment).
One of the highlights of the album is Kottke’s “Noon to Noon,” with its melancholy, poetic shades of Leonard Cohen. It’s about watching a terminally ill person live out their life.
“That song was a surprise to me. I wondered where it came from. It’s sort of a samba or mambo by way of Hennepin Avenue,” said Kottke. “The lyric turns out to have been a recapitulation of someone I knew who is no longer here. I was never going to write about it because it was too close. This thing had 40 or 50 years before it came out in the lyric.”
Since the album was released digitally in August (the CD and vinyl versions are available Friday), Kottke and Gordon have done a few remote virtual performances to promote “Noon” — CBS’ “A Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” and a program at the Grammy Museum — even though they were in their own respective hometowns.
“I hadn’t heard the word ‘publicist’ in — how long? — 30 years,” Kottke pointed out, with a mix of surprise and irony. “It’s been great. It’s kind of exciting.”
A conversation with Kottke is a bit like one of his solo concerts. He shares fascinating stories about both famous and obscure people, goes off on humorous tangents that he sometimes comes back to, delivers quotable quotes and arcane factoids, and never fails to captivate and entertain.
Appetite for recording
Kottke acknowledges that “Noon” “woke up the recording appetite in me.” He’s now working on a record with Minneapolis percussionist Dave King, who plays with the Bad Plus and Happy Apple. Kottke and Gordon are also discussing another collaboration.
One of the reasons Kottke is excited to record again is because he has a new six-string acoustic guitar with a smaller body, crafted to his specifications by Kevin Muiderman, a Grand Forks, N.D., cosmetic surgeon who is a luthier in his spare time.
“This guitar makes music for you,” Kottke said, his smile apparent over the phone.
Moreover, being off the road and not having to think about the next concert has expanded his musical palette. “I’ve got a couple things — two vocals and three instrumentals — that wouldn’t have happened. They’re palpably different.”
Kottke is also writing a memoir. He was encouraged by award-winning author and Syracuse University creative writing professor George Saunders, who was struck by Kottke’s e-mails and introduced him to an editor.
“I have license to do it,” said Kottke, who has written prose for himself since sixth grade. “It doesn’t take away from the guitar. It actually helps with it. I’ve got about 52,000 words. I’m just making myself happy with it.”
Here’s another number — 75. That’s the age Kottke turned on Sept. 11.
“I’m in better health than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’m happier. I’m having a great time. But it is a time I couldn’t have possibly imagined even 10 years ago,” he said. “Certainly not the time we are told to expect at age 75.
“This is brand-new stuff. The littlest thing makes me smile. I wouldn’t change any of this. There’s more feeling, there’s more cognition, there’s more intellect, there’s more emotion. There’s more of everything and a lot less of me.”