Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon – Sixty Six Steps

In early 2003, one of my students asked me if I’d heard of Leo Kottke. Having been brought up with the twelve-string guitar, of course my answer was yes. But I wasn’t sure how my student had heard of him, being that he was far more into bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident. Turns out that he’d just been turned onto Clone, a collaboration between Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon, the excellent bass player of Phish. And, after hearing the CD myself, I ran out to get a copy as well. I won’t make you sit through a review of Clone, other than to tell you it’s more than well worth your while to track down a copy.

The two stellar musicians have teamed again to bring us Sixty Six Steps, an incredibly wonderful CD. While the initial inspiration for the album comes from Gordon’s love of Calypso and Caribbean music, it is definitely a group effort. And the group is extended to three: Neil Symonette, famous for his work as the house drummer at Nassau’s Compass Point Studios, holds everything together with his stunning percussion, playing such a variety of instruments that I could probably spend the rest of the review listing them.

The first thing that strikes you is that here are three musicians having fun. The CD opens with a perky, playful instrumental cover of Pete Seeger’s Living In The Country, which sets the mood perfectly with a joyful rhythm and layers of harmonious guitar lines.

Gordon’s tune, The Grid, slows things down a pace, but still retains the disc’s playful nature with its quirky lyrics. And things don’t slow down for long – next up is a cover of Peter Green’s classic Oh Well that can’t sit still to save its life. It’s a fitting tribute to all the musicians involved (including writer Peter Green) that Kottke and Gordon play this fairly straight, as covers go, but still manage to make it sound very fresh.

Kottke the vocalist takes the stage on Rings, a song that hit and vanished from the Top Forty back in the early seventies. I can’t even tell you the name of the band that did it, and I’m usually pretty good at that! When I first heard this on the CD I thought, “I didn’t know anyone else even knew this song!” and then I marveled at how well it fit in with the “island” feel of Sixty Six Steps. Whichever one of the two chose this, it was certainly inspired and unexpected.

And speaking of unexpected, after a compelling Kottke instrumental piece called Cherry County, the trio launches into Sweet Emotion. Yes, the very one by Aerosmith! In the trio’s capable hands you notice what could be the paradox of the whole album – there is so much going on, what with the multiple guitar lines and bass lines and various percussive instruments weaving hither and yon, yet there is so much space! You could imagine getting even more instruments and vocals into the act! If you listen carefully, it sounds like someone’s playing a banjo! According to the press that I’ve read, it’s actually a baglama, which I believe is a Turkish instrument.

At times, it’s hard to tell which of the two writers is having more fun. The Stolen Quiet, an engaging Gordon piece on breaking up (“…with your diet soda gone, there’s more room for my beer…”) and Kottke’s Balloon, with its reference to the pizote, a cheese-stealing raccoon of Costa Rica (where the two took a vacation), don’t seem all that surreal when the lyrics are nested in the comfortable Caribbean rhythms.

One worry about collaborations is that the artists seem to be engaged in one-upping the other. With Gordon and Kottke, you feel like two old friends have gotten together for no other reason than to have some fun. On Gordon’s songs, like Can’t Hang, Over The Dam, and Invisible¸ Kottke’s guitar may take a back seat, but you never feel he’s left the car. In fact, you know he’s thinking he’s going to be the best accompanist anyone could ever have! And when he gets a song to himself, like the soulful instrumental From Spink To Correctionville, it’s so far from flashy that it’s a breath of fresh air. And Gordon’s bass lines are always spot on – students of the instrument couldn’t have a finer teacher. Even on a simple ballad like Kottke’s Twice¸ Gordon finds the best spaces. And when they work on a “group” piece like Ya Mar (a staple of many a Phish concert), the selflessness of their playing creates something magical.

Word is that the three are planning to tour to showcase this album and their other work. If you have the chance to see them, definitely do! And if you can’t (or even if you do!), just go get a copy of Sixty Six Steps and relax and enjoy the company of some inventive, talented people who love to make music.