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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Mikey Goralnik | Paint The Town Brown

Someone once told me that seeing Tom Waits in concert is like meeting God but not having to pay for the DMT or LSD. I've seen Tom Waits twice, and I'm going to tell you that if this sage-like analysis is true, then seeing Leo Kottke is like discovering the Holy Grail in Atlantis surrounded by intelligent extraterrestrial life who are boys with Amelia Earhart — and getting free DMT or LSD while you're there.
    I tend to get really worked up about performances by young-gun electronica producers and high-energy bands with standout rhythm sections. Kottke, the 63-year-old Oklahoma-raised guitar veteran, is neither of these things, but his was still the best show I've seen all year. Musically jaw-dropping and emotionally sublime, the guitarist reminded me (as if I could forget) why he will die one of the most significant figures in both American music history and my life.
    So much has been said by more knowledgeable people about Kottke's guitar abilities that I really have no place talking about it again, but whatever — it's my column, I do what I want. I know and have seen a lot of guitar players and even played for a spell myself, so it's hard for me to really wrap my head around how much better he is than virtually almost everyone else I have ever heard.
    Simply watching his hands and seeing these painfully intricate phrases take form in front of my eyes, I felt much the same as I did seeing LeBron James beat the Detroit Pistons in game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals: Either I'm watching some kind of elaborate hoax, or this is a display of skill and creativity more incredible than any I've ever seen.
    With the 12-stringed "Gewerbegebiet," it was the composition: part black dirge, part multi-colored flamenco-esque; the song waltzes, then explodes in two totally different but somehow similar sections. With "Ants," which he prefaced with a rambling, hilarious review of his favorite illustrated ant biology textbook, it was the left hand, frantically running along the fretboard and precisely pressing on the disparate notes with spidery dexterity. Other times, it was his open or unorthodoxly dropped tunings, his battered, baritone voice, or his commanding presence on stage. Whatever it was, every single second of the show coursed with an elite level of technical prowess that I'm neither the first nor the last to geek over.
    Kottke's skills aside, on an autobiographical level, I haven't been as moved at a show as I was at the Sanders Theatre. Not only is he the endearing grandfather figure that I always wanted, but he's also a powerfully pathological force for me. When I was 12, my parents took me to see Kottke at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis. Ever since, his music — particularly his voice — has evoked not only that night, but my parents, my city and my adolescence as well. Seeing and hearing him in that beautifully intimate room brought all of that rushing back in a swell of nostalgia, and for a Midwestern boy who has never been that comfortable in New England, that's a pretty powerful and important effect.
    But even if you don't share my personal attachment to the man, Kottke gave his legion of fans many, many other things to smile about on their way home. Personally, I left both knowing beyond a doubt that I just sat second row center away from one of folk music's ageless legends, and having taken a poignant trip through the more treasured areas of my pathos. And I wasn't even tripping!


Mikey Goralnik is a senior majoring in American history. He can be reached at

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