- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

It was six years and two weeks ago that Leo Kottke last played the Birchmere, and fans are pouring in to mark the guitar virtuoso’s return. The two shows tomorrow and Saturday are sold out and are set to start at 7:30 p.m.

Since his last visit, Mr. Kottke has released three albums: 1999’s “One Guitar, No Vocals,” as well as his celebrated collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, “Clone” — for which a follow-up disc, titled “Sixty-Six Steps,” is due out in May on the RCA/BMG label — and “Try and Stop Me,” a largely instrumental recording that features his craggy baritone voice on one track, a cover of a Les Rice song Pete Seeger popularized with the Weavers, “The Banks of Marble.”

Mr. Kottke says, “As far as the business and its technologies, I think I’ve just been incredibly lucky.” He is counted among the world’s best acoustic guitarists, despite elusive popular success.

His breakout “6- and 12-String Guitar,” released in 1969 on John Fahey’s original label, Takoma Records, brought national attention to the fledgling but dexterous player.

“Without Fahey, I wouldn’t be here,” Mr. Kottke says. “He released my first record, signed me to Capitol and was my friend for 30 years.”

“It’s taken me years to admit how much of an influence he is on my writing,” he says. Mr. Fahey, who grew up in Takoma Park, died in 2001.

Over the span of 34 records, Mr. Kottke has remained true to what he calls “a geography” of the guitar.

“It’s a mysterious undertaking, something we know even as kids. I doubt I have a vision, but I do feel a kind of geography in the tunes and in the guitar,” he says. “And I guess I live there.”

Mr. Kottke is legendary for his stage presence and humor. The set of shows beginning on April Fools’ Day should be no exception.

“The gist is, I talk to find out what to play next. It just helps me feel my way,” he says. “Most importantly, because I don’t sell myself as a monologist, I can shut up whenever I feel like it … which isn’t often, and probably should be more often.”

If the lineup of the new bluegrass band Reflections Ridge looks — and sounds — familiar, it should. Three members of the band formerly performed with the Seldom Scene.

Tonight at the Birchmere, John Starling will rejoin Seldom Scene veterans Mike Auldridge on resophonic guitar and bassist Tom Gray. On fiddle and mandolin, respectively, are two of the region’s bluegrass stalwarts, Rickie Simpkins and Jimmy Gaudreau.

The Seldom Scene earned national acclaim, but the band paid its dues right in Washington. Starting in 1971, the band combined the talents of Mr. Auldridge, Mr. Gray, Dr. Starling and banjo player Ben Eldridge, along with the now-deceased John Duffey, a mandolin legend who first found fame with Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen.

All kept their day jobs when they were starting out, appearing every Thursday at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda and later at the Birchmere. Mr. Duffey called it “boys’ night out,” recalls Dr. Starling, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Fredericksburg.

“We decided it would be fun to get back in the studio,” says Dr. Starling, 65. “We don’t want to get in the way of the current Seldom Scene. We’re happy they are keeping the name and the music of the Seldom Scene alive.”

“We’re a banjoless band,” Dr. Starling says, laughing. “We decided if Ben wasn’t going to play, we wouldn’t have a banjo.”

(Mr. Eldridge heads the current lineup of the Seldom Scene with Dudley Connell on guitar, Lou Reid on mandolin, Mr. Simpkins’ brother Ronnie Simpkins on bass and Fred Travers on resophonic guitar.)

Reflections Ridge is recording a disc, scheduled for release in the fall. Emmylou Harris will make a guest appearance on the recording. Dr. Starling says, “She was somewhat of an inspiration for us to do this in the first place.”

Fans should expect new music, although Dr. Starling says the band might perform one or two Seldom Scene selections. Appearances, for now, will be few.

“At our age, we’re going to play, but we’re not going to beat the road to death,” he says. “We’re doing it for ourselves, and we think there’s some people out there who want to hear it.”

“We’re having fun,” he says. “And that’s the whole idea.”

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