Leo Kottke, Bob Seger and the Great Unknown

I recently had the unmitigated delight of hearing Leo Kottke and Bob Seger on consecutive nights, a sort of dream doubleheader for a music disciple like me. Leo played the State Theatre in Kalamazoo, an elegant den of iniquity featuring classical statues and clouds on the ceiling, while Bob rocked Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena, which packs 12,000 fans together with the sonic intensity of an airplane hangar.

Together, my totally significant other Andrea and I most willingly let ourselves be taken on the embryonic journey of music, led by these two aging masters of that ever-expanding universe. They took us to parts unknown, new yet familiar landscapes of sound and soul, like diving into a lovely inland lake you haven’t seen for years.

Leo’s journey was crooked, funny and wonderful as always. A Kottke concert, of which I’ve experienced half a dozen, is equal parts jaw-dropping musicianship and droll commentary. He was in rare form on both counts. His guitar playing remains stunningly beautiful from the simplest melodies to the most complex convolutions.

He led us back to his very roots with “Vaseline Machine Gun,” a slide stunner from his landmark second album, “6- and 12-String Guitar.” I first saw him play this on the “Midnight Special” ‘70s TV show. Leo wowed me then with his furious picking and his obvious joy in it. His State Theatre performance, if more staid, was no less joyful.

Ditto for “Last Steam Engine Train,” a lickety-split country-blues romp that Leo said he always credited to his musical godfather, John Fahey. He said Fahey credited it to Sam McGee, but that Chet Atkins said McGee never wrote anything like that. So Leo happily claimed it as his own.

Other tunes were less sunny and more complicated. Leo has a tendency to get lost in layers of rhythm and riff, repeating and reshaping fugue-like motifs until you wonder if he’ll ever find his way out. Just when you think he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he comes out whole and smiling.

It’s as if he’s searching for something through his guitar – a secret passageway to the very heart of melody, rhythm and resonance that beats like a Holy Grail at the end of the cosmos. If he could just find it everything would fall into place.  He takes us with him, exploring the deep mysteries of sound and feeling.    

His vocals, from the buoyant favorite “Rings” to the crowd-pleasing “Pamela Brown,” warmed us up with his deeply resonant and eminently likable voice. He once famously likened his singing to geese farts on  a muggy day — an observation as misleading as it was hilarious.

Speaking of hilarious, he was more so than usual with his rambling tales between songs. The oddity of standing on one’s legs, walking on his hands as a child, the indignity of nicknames: He expounded on these and many other topics much longer than one would think possible. Like his convoluted fugues, you wonder how he’ll ever find his way back out of these stories. Sometimes he seems to wonder the same thing, but laughs along with us, incredulous at his own absurdity.   

It is joy that emanates from Leo’s smile and guitar, as much today as when I first saw him at Michigan State University in 1972 or so. He is no longer baby-faced but is still the happy boy. He seems to realize how blessed he is to make his living by music, the very thing he would love to do most if no one paid him for it.

And it was joy that shone from Bob Seger’s face the moment he hit the stage the following night at Van Andel Arena, greeted by roaring fans like a favorite cousin pulling in the driveway. Pumping his fists and beaming through glasses and grey hair, Seger was our Michigan boy, still rocking hard and running against the wind after all these years.

As captured by my bandmate and colleague John Sinkevics’ excellent review on mlive.com, Seger seemed very much at home among us, as well he should. The love palpably passed between us as Seger belted out “Hollywood Nights” and “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” and passionately crooned “Beautiful Loser” and “We’ve Got Tonight.”

For all his hardcore Detroit-rock cred, Seger is the sweetest rock star you’ll ever see. The sweetness this night was about seeing a man with an aging body but still-powerful voice, giving his all for more than two hours for fans who have weathered much themselves in this hardest hit of recession states. When Kid Rock joined him for “Real Mean Bottle,” the bedlam buried the needle.

Two men who love to make music, two people who love to hear them, two nights of unmitigated joy. Not a bad way to start April.

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