By George V. Nostrand
Given a slightly longer deadline, I could easily write separate books on the careers and technical wizardry of guitar legends Leo Kottke and Keller Williams. The idea of the two of them sharing the same stage was initially hard to get my head around. But the more I thought about it, the more it started making sense — as much as anything about Kottke or Williams could make sense, that is.
Kottke and Williams will be rolling into Rutland on Jan. 13 to play the Paramount Theatre, performing as part of their “Shut The Folk Up and Listen” tour. The show will feature solo sets from each artist as well as spontaneous collaborations between the two.
For those unfamiliar with one or the other — or possibly both — of these amazingly talented souls, here’s my best shot at a summary.
Kottke, the senior statesman of the duo, made a name for himself in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s with his brilliant finger-picking-style guitar that seemed to both cross and defy genres. Kottke played with both ridiculous speed and crisp precision — and not without feeling.
A cursory listen to his early catalogue shows him creating a fusion of jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass, pop, country, swing, rock and ragtime, to name a few. Mixed with a dark sense of humor, a knack for storytelling and his self-depreciating stage persona, Kottke quickly developed a cult following.
In 1972, in an era where bands like Yes, ELO and Led Zeppelin painted layers of expansive musical landscapes and flexed their guitar-hero muscles, Kottke’s release, simply titled, “Six and Twelve String Guitar,” blew the doors off, and the minds of musicians and music fans of the day. The album was instrumental (Kottke sang on other albums but has never been a fan of his own voice) and went on to sell over a half-million copies. In addition to the amazing deftness of his right hand, Kottke also dazzled audiences with his slide guitar playing.
In 1970, Carl Bauer of Rolling Stone magazine wrote, “Kottke isn’t a new addition to the Page-Beck school of grating, hypertensive guitarists, as if you were expecting that. He’s an acoustic guitarist from Minneapolis whose music can invoke your most subliminal reflections or transmit you to the highest reaches of joy… anything in addition to his guitar would be superfluous.”
But there is another musician at the show next week who’s also made a name for himself as an innovator and pioneer in the guitar-playing world.
While Williams was most likely not the first musician to use a loop station on stage, he not only brought the technology to the front stage, but brought the art of looping and the pedal to the point that made it an instrument in itself and allowed him to put on one-man-band shows like never seen before.
A loop station is a guitar pedal that allows a musician to record live on stage, by stomping on and off while continuing to play. The musician is able to then layer on additional tracks. In his live performances, Williams not only layers guitar parts, but also vocals, percussion and various other instruments (real and faux). Using a loop pedal is one of those things that looks easy to do, but actually requires perfect timing and takes a long time to learn. It is also something that — if it backfires — can be show-stopping.
Williams clearly studied hard and played a lot of solo gigs refining his art. Then he got a career boost as an opener for the popular jam band String Cheese Incident. Today, a look at his website shows that he has more projects going on than seems possible. From gospel bands to psychedelic bluegrass to children’s music, Williams is constantly playing, performing and recording.
For this tour, called “Shut The Folk Up and Listen,” Williams sets aside this looper that led to his fame and gets back to his roots with an all-acoustic set. Williams is poised to release two albums simultaneously, a week after his show in Rutland, so he’ll be drawing on both of those for material. Based on previews from those recordings, the looper was no gimmick. His talent is clear, with or without it.
As for what to expect when you put the two of these guys on stage? I have no idea, but the following words come to mind: brilliant, jaw-dropping, hilarious and wildly entertaining.
The Paramount Theatre, in association with Higher Ground, presents Keller Williams and Leo Kottke in their “Shut the Folk Up and Listen” tour at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13, on the Paramount main stage, 30 Center St., Rutland. Tickets are $35, $45, $50; call 802-775-0903, or go online to www.paramountvt.org.