Technically and tool-wise, Leo Kottke belongs in the subculture of (mostly) instrumental steel-string guitarists of a loosely progressive folk nature. But the tools don’t make — or tightly define — this musician, a blissfully odd man out in the guitar scene for the past 50 years. As the lanky, loopy, and cozily idiosyncratic Minnesotan showed at the Lobero Theatre last week — the latest stop in this ideal room for what he does — Kottke has defined his own school of cool.
On six- and 12-string guitars, with the occasional open tunings and gruff-but-loveable vocals in the mix, Kottke spun out his web of tunes, going back to such late ’60s gems as “Vaseline Machine Gun” and “Jack Fig,” the Chrysalis Records era and beyond. Between songs, he spun yarns in his own inimitable style, with a kind of surreal Midwestern drollery, recalling loony college friends, his influential high school music teacher (Kottke was a trombonist, pre-guitar fixation), and his late friend and musical ally Leon Redbone.
Kottke has his own way of hopping on a swampy folk-train groove, with his mumbling thumb and his roving, story-telling chord fragments. But he also injects jazz harmony (as on “Jesus Maria”) and peculiar song structures (like “Oddball,” also redone by the Turtle Island String Quartet) into the program. Some songs are there to party; others counterbalance with emotional ambiguity and more complex musical musings.
A half-century into his adventure, the great American oddball prevails.