Acoustic odd couples reign this week at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (30 Second St., Troy). If the separately famous Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby form the most unexpected of these pairings, Leo Kottke is also a notable dichotomy, all by himself.
Kottke performs solo on Saturday, but which of two Leo Kottkes will show up? The Georgia-born, Minnesota-based Kottke first made his mark as an overwhelming folk-guitar instrumentalist. Considered the greatest 12-string picker since Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Kottke made his debut album “12 String Blues” in 1969 and “6- and 12-String Guitar” in 1972 on fellow guitar-hero John Fahey’s label.
Soon, he yielded to pressure from Fahey and others to sing and write songs, despite Kottke’s own description of his voice as resembling “geese farts on a muggy day.” Those who want him to, as Frank Zappa titled one of his own albums, “shut up and play yer guitar” might find that description too kind. But the truth is that Kottke’s blurry baritone is full of character and depth, and that he writes pretty good songs and borrows even better ones from other songwriters.
He has also become a highly entertaining storyteller onstage, though you might need a roadmap to follow all his verbal detours, and detours off those detours. To some, Zappa’s injunction might apply to those rambles as well as to his singing, and Kottke knows this. On a previous visit to the music hall, he stopped himself in mid-monologue saying, “I could go on, and I have.”
After combining singing, picking and storytelling for two decades, Kottke suffered tendon damage in his hands that sidelined him for much of the 1980s while he healed and relearned how to play, recording regularly but touring seldom. Everything was working just fine when Kottke teamed up with Phish bassist Mike Gordon for two albums and tours; and when he returned to the road, he resumed visiting the music hall regularly. His latest non-Gordon album, 2004’s “Try and Stop Me,” features only one vocal, and 10 instrumentals.
However, as with all of his albums that mix vocals and instrumentals, the “two-Kottkes” dichotomy emerges clearly. His guitar playing is clear, hard and crystalline as a diamond, while his singing is fuzzy, furry and foggy. Strange thing: The two parts fit together beautifully.
Show time is 8 p.m., Tickets are $32 and $29. Phone 273-0038 or visit www.troymusichall.org.
MIXING IT UP
When Kentuckian mandolinist Ricky Skaggs and Virginian pianist Bruce Hornsby step onto the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall stage next Thursday, they will face Skaggs’ bluegrass/country fans and Hornsby’s Deadhead-demographic jazz-rockers. But just as Kottke stitches mountain stream guitar to his back-alley baritone, Skaggs and Hornsby will create a single, and startling, unified impression.
It all makes sense, even before they prove it when they start playing. Skaggs played bluegrass with Ralph Stanley as a teenager before attaining mainstream country stardom, without ever entirely leaving the pristine zip of bluegrass behind.
Founding a new band Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs began a Grammy-grabbing third career as a bluegrass revivalist with impeccable credentials and towering skills. Hornsby had some bluegrass in his toolbox when he emerged as a surprisingly rootsy pop star but also rock, jazz and a bit of country. However, he has decisively moved away from the pop world, restlessly exploring less commercial music. He broke up his radio-friendly band the Range.
He joined the Grateful Dead, whom he called a “jazz band playing rock ’n’ roll” because they improvised, and left when they’d have been happy to keep him. He formed a jazz-rock band of his own, a combo so versatile that most of their Palace Theatre show several years ago was requests.
Last year he played at The Egg solo, with just his piano and no band, and he was even looser than at the Palace. Then a few months later, he played the Calvin Theater in Northampton in a jazz trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Christian McBride — both of whom said admiring things about him.
Clearly, Hornsby can play anything, with anyone.
Both Skaggs and Hornsby made their area debuts as substantial stars, Skaggs in 1981 at Albany’s Palace Theater and Hornsby a handful of years later at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. And each has played in smaller venues since Skaggs returned to his bluegrass roots and since Hornsby dived deep into diversity and spontaneity.
The Troy Saving Bank Music Hall is right-sized for these guys now, and they’ll play with Skaggs’ band Kentucky Thunder on Thursday. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $48 and $42.
No one in that whole sprawling tribe of Texas troubadours gets more respect from his peers than Eric Taylor — nor less attention, probably, from those outside the brother-and-sisterhood of words and melodies, of guitars and notebooks.
“The real deal — one of my heroes,” says Steve Earle. “A very gifted songwriter,” says Joan Baez. “I love his voice and he has a great narrative quality and sense of detail,” adds Lyle Lovett. “The William Faulkner of songwriting in our time,” says Nanci Griffith, “one of America’s most unusual guitarists, with lyrics that will nail your heart to your ear and mind. One of the finest writers of our time.”
The sheer greatness of his new “Hollywood Pocketknife” album suggests these admiring pals underestimate him. The songs are specific as your most private dread or exhilaration, and they pull you where Taylor wants to take you as irresistibly as a locomotive.
Taylor performs tonight at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) starting at 8 p.m. Admission is $15, $12 for members. Phone 583-0022 or visit www.caffelena.com.