Leo Kottke flubbed an intro and decided to start a tune over about halfway into his performance Friday at the Scottish Rite Temple Theater.
"You won't see Justin Bieber do that," he told the audience. "I can stop if I want to."
It was a not-so-subtle shot at today's manufactured pop stars, most of whom don't play instruments, can't write their ways out of a paper bag and put more emphasis on their looks and dance moves than creating real grooves on their own. They'd rather lip sync than syncopate.
Of course, Kottke's preaching to the choir at his concerts. He's been around a long time, as the baby boomer crowd attested. He's 66 and has been making records since the late 1960s, cut from the folk boom cloth that informed rock, elevated the profile of blues music and engendered a new appreciation for music that was transformed once it completed watery journeys from Europe and Africa to America.
He is, in a sense, a link to all of that, a finger-picking acoustic guitar innovator whose ragtime rhythms form the foundation of a style of music that is as unique and eccentric as Kottke, music that can change lanes from mountain folk to roadhouse blues to new agey jazz to reinvisioned country without so much as a turn signal.
Friday's performance before about 200 people was Kottke's first here, surprising given the length of his career and the small roots music community that has existed here for years. It wasn't great — Kottke walks the tightrope that is instinct and improvisation — but it was of a high enough quality to get that appreciative crowd on its feet immediately, not gratuitously, when it ended 90 minutes after it began.
The thing with Kottke — I saw him several times in the 1980s in an 1,800-seat theater in Kalamazoo, Mich., once with Michael Hedges — is that he's an outstanding, quirky guitarist in a class all his own, a stream of consciousness storyteller (he was hit-and-miss Friday) and a guy who sings only occasionally, having once described his crusty baritone as the sound of "geese farts on a muggy day."
Friday's 17-song performance was a good introduction to the locals, but as much as I appreciate the equally quirky theater as a venue for acoustic music like this, a folk club or coffeehouse where you could have a drink or a beer would have been a better setting.
As it is, playing El Paso for the first time may have taken Kottke and his Midwestern sensibilities a bit out of his comfort zone. His humorous monologues had more of a stop-and-start quality than I remembered from years ago, and several times he didn't finish a thought or would start a story and elect to stop it.
One about stealing water for circus elephants as a kid in Cheyenne, Wyo., had more of a shaggy dog quality than a point. His thoughts on stage fright cures and the chair he was provided, which he accused of "inflating," were much funnier, but no more insightful than spoken thoughts such as "I often think a piece of wood outthinks us" and "If you have the light bulb going over your head, turn it off."
Of course, one doesn't go to a Leo Kottke concert for the laughs. You hope for a few in between his masterful guitar work, most of it on a 12-string, some on a 6-string, a couple embellished by some wonderful bottleneck work that just dripped from the guitar.
Musically speaking, Kottke threw a little bit of everything at the crowd, invoking the spirit of Scott Joplin on jittery, jangling instrumentals such as "William Powell" and the measured blues- and jazz-tinged "Little Beaver," his ode to R&B guitar man Willie "Little Beaver" Hale.
Though not known as a great vocalist, many of the songs that showcased that grainy husk of a voice stood out Friday, including his takes on Tom T. Hall's lament "Pamela Brown" and a slowed version of the blues standard "Corrina, Corrina," Frizz Fuller's evocative (and wholly misnamed) "From Pizza Towers to Defeat," his own forlorn love song "Julie's House" and a pensive version of 19th century poet Christina Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter," not at all recognizable as the Christmas carol, maybe because he chose to sing only the first verse two times.
With El Paso's own Tom Russell drawing more than 400 to the historic theater on April 21 and now Kottke's well-attended local debut, it makes one wonder if there's an audience for some kind of regular series of folk and acoustic blues and jazz concerts there.
They've certainly proven that on their own relatively small scale that there is an audience for something other than heavy metal, Latin pop, classic rock and manufactured stars like Justin Bieber.