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CHARM ON A STRING : Leo Kottke's Gift Is As Much Personality As Guitar Greatness

May 16, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

The world probably has more than enough guitar heroes. The refreshing thing about Leo Kottke is that he likes to play the part of a guitar anti-hero.

On stage, Kottke doesn't try to come off as a demigod whose fret-burning, finger-blurring exploits should command an audience's homage. The gruff-voiced Minnesotan is more likely to play the part of a bemused, somewhat befuddled, self-deprecating humorist. Kottke, who plays solo, has the expert folk musician's knack of winning an audience not only with a display of what he can do, but with the simple charm of who he is.

What Kottke can do on his acoustic 6- and 12-string guitars is considerable. His varied, idiosyncratic approach to the guitar takes him through an extremely wide range of styles and moods that includes folk music, rock-oriented material (including a fine version of "Eight Miles High") and, more recently, excursions into jazz and African sounds.

On pieces like his 12-string bottleneck masterpiece, "Vaseline Machine Gun," which dates back to 1972, Kottke showed that he could put on a hard-driving fireworks display as exciting as the electric sallies of a Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton. On his most recent album, "That's What," Kottke's playing is the opposite of that free-firing gunnery, tending toward the spare, the austere and the contemplative.

Even in that placid context, the 45-year-old musician's quirky streak comes through. "Husbandry," one of the occasional vocal numbers that crop up in Kottke's mostly instrumental catalogue, is a strange, inscrutable fable about a cigar-smoking man and a combustible dog.

Kottke began his recording career in 1969, became a protege of John Fahey and released his breakthrough album, "6 and 12 String Guitar," on Fahey's Takoma label. Although Kottke gave a typically self-mocking assessment of his vocal talents in that album's liner notes (he likened it to the sound of geese breaking wind), he proved on subsequent releases to be a gruff but engaging singer.

Kottke has recorded and toured steadily, releasing 21 albums in all. Last year, he stepped into the classical music world as well, writing music for guitar and orchestra with composer Steven Paulus.

Who: Leo Kottke.

When: Wednesday, May 22, at 8 p.m.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Center.

Wherewithal: $19.50.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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