“Ta da,” said Leo Kotke at the Egg’s Swyer Theater after playing for 30 seconds and stopping. “That stunk.”
Such were the first four syllables of many more to come Friday night for a filled theater.
He slouched over his guitar and proceeded to pick away at the next three songs alone on stage. No singing for a while, no song titles, no hits to generate cheers, just steady, solo acoustic playing.
He likes to fill the sound with notes, never leaving space for a comma, never pausing for a breath. At 67, he’s a gentle, steady player, choosing mainly pretty, often sad, tunes that tell stories without lyrics.
The tempos varied, but the dynamic stayed at one level.
The set was impressively sparse: a chair, a microphone on a stand and his guitar. Not even a rug underneath or a bottle of water.
His famous rambles were hilarious. He talked about the 18th century bassoon player who tried to bite off the thumb of his conductor.
“Those bassoon players,” he said.
Then, a short time later, “More than 120 genera of ants, only one genus of us. We are doomed. The ants have already won.”
There were a few bright tunes, songs you could match with happy lyrics, despite their blues structure. While there is a level of monotony to his music, there was always something subtle to latch on to, some unexplainable bass line underneath the rhythm that he played while strumming, or a riff he somehow picked alongside the main melody. Sometimes he sent a slide sound, even without a slide on his finger.
He would tell stories between — and even during — songs. After the story, he would push away the microphone stand with his leg and start playing, then he’d pull the mike back to him and say something like, “I got these socks in the Navy, by the way.” Or, “I was the Ted Kaczynski of third grade.”
Before he sang the short, sad “Julies’s House,” he talked about a girl “who had been haunting me since” grade school, “a true story, except for the part that wasn’t true.”
He liked the introduction to “Pamela Brown,” and said, “If you weren’t here, I’d play this for two hours.”
Along with an advanced sense of blues and folk, Kotke has a developed classical style, and treated the audience to “Gewerbegebiet,” a word he made up for the song. The beautiful piece spawned no laughter or interruptions. It was the most serious and focused moment of the night and precisely why so many had come to see him.
The audience included a wide range of ages, including a 20-something cohort, perhaps the result of Kotke’s two albums with Mike Gordon, the bassist for Phish.
Kotke talked about his eighth-grade band teacher, who remembered him a few years ago back in Oklahoma, and also remembered the entire band.
“He was an amazing guy, and a great teacher,” Kotke recalled. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
He played “Rings” for an encore and shared a humorous story about being on a golf course in Michigan at age 3 years.
“I had motivation then,” he quipped.
Maybe this is true, but something keeps him going strong, for there are not many solo acoustic strummers who can draw a full crowd today, let alone one in his late 60s.