First Unitarian Church
There are few unforgettable shows I can recall that don't also take in to account more insubstantial factors like lighting, stage presence and the people you happened to see them with. Performers like Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters manage to transcend such distractions, relying solely on their songwriting and skill as musicians. Kozelek also rarely ever tours, so when last night's show at First Unitarian Church was announced in the fall, fans of the Bay Area folk singer's somber ballads sat on their hands for months in anticipation.
As lead singer of Red House Painters, Kozelek enjoyed moderate success throughout the 90's with a series of critically-acclaimed albums. However, due to strained relationships with their record label 4AD, then-owned by Warner Bros. Records, the band was dropped from their label, a decision that 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell later claimed was one of the worst decisions he ever made. The band signed to Island Records not long after, but the release of their final album Old Ramon was stymied by a series of corporate mergers, not seeing a release until 2001. By that time, Kozelek had already split from the band and started up a solo career, but Red House Painters enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000's, after being featured alongside Radiohead and Sigur Rós on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe's psychological thriller Vanilla Sky.
Talking to some friends before the show on Saturday night, I quickly realized I wasn't the only person that first heard of Kozelek through Vanilla Sky. Though the film struggles to hold up over time like most of Crowe's canon, its excellent soundtrack clearly resonated with fellow heavy-hearted adolescents of my generation. In particular, Kozelek's forlorn standout "Have You Forgotten" became a ubiquitous selection on mix CD's compiled from illegal downloads on Napster and Kazaa. Consequently, most of the audience at last night's show seemed to be in their late 20's or early 30's and were probably in high school or college when the movie first came out.
Red House Painters - "Have You Forgotten"
There was no opener for the show, and Kozelek, wearing all black, appeared on stage just after 9 PM to an uproariously warm welcome. Starting with "I Know It's Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life," the opener from his sprawling 17-track album Among The Leaves, he settled in to his seat in the middle of the stage, draped in a glow from the soft blue lighting. In the past, I've heard complaints about the acoustics at First Unitarian Church, but in Kozelek's case, they couldn't have been better. Throughout the show, there was a minimal account of echo, and every lyric and pluck of the guitar seemed to be perfectly mic'ed. Of course, that didn't stop one person from rudely breaking the silence after the first song with a call to turn up the volume. Kozelek handled it well though, laughing it off and defending the preferences of sound technician.
For the next two hours, Kozelek sampled from his extensive catalog, traversing decades of quality output, from the simpler songs of his early work with Red House Painters to more complex selections from his recent releases as Sun Kil Moon. Early on in the set, there was even a cover of "Grey Ice Water" from his 2005 collection of Modest Mouse songs Tiny Cities. Not surprisingly though, Kozelek seemed much more passionate and engaged in his newer material and understandably so. His three releases under the Sun Kil Moon moniker feature the best songwriting of his career, though they are clearly more demanding in regard to vocal delivery and guitar picking. Eliciting a lengthy applause after "Have You Forgotten," he then set off in to a three song stretch that left his hands cramped and exhausted, taking a well-deserved breather afterward.
During that three song stretch, back-to-back songs from Among The Leaves served as the highlight of the set. First, he casually dipped in to "Elaine," a lengthy operatic folk ballad that touches on a loved one's experience with drug addiction. Then, it was on to "That Bird Has A Broken Wing," a forceful barrage of personal anecdotes lamenting the foreign existence of a traveling performer. Now in his mid-40's, Kozelek seems to be openly contemplating the validity of his choice to become a singer-songwriter in his lyrics. Later on in his set, he performed another new song called "Track Number 8," where he sings "Songwriting costs, it doesn't come free. Ask Elliott Smith, Ask Richie Lee. Ask Mark Linkous, Ask Shannon Hoon, to get up on stage and sing you a tune. This business is trouble, a big nagging cyst. You sit on my plane and I'll sit at your desk." The days of fat paychecks and constant streams of groupies are indeed over for Kozelek.
Sun Kil Moon and The Album Leaf - "Caroline"
For as much as Kozelek has been painted as a crank and a recluse in the media, his character certainly shone through during several breaks in the show. At one point, he noted the casual dress of the audience, exclaiming, "God damn, there's a lot of tennis shoes in the front row." And later on in the set, he actually took a few questions from the audience. One person asked if he needed a hug, to which he quickly replied that he didn't. Then, someone asked what he was listening to these days, to which he retorted, "What are you listening to these days, besides Bon Iver and fucking Jose Gonzalez?" Then, he launched in to a story about how Jose Gonzalez "stalked him in Sweden," then tried to give him some unwelcome guitar advice over dinner years later. It was a humorous anecdote, but more than that, a peek in to the mindset of an exceptionally skilled veteran, underrated even among his peers.
Kozelek capped off the performance with a song from his forthcoming collaboration with The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle, titled Perils From The Sea and due out in April. LaValle wrote most of the music for the project, with Kozelek handling lyrics and vocal duties, and though the songs played last night were all acoustic, the album relies heavily on drum machines and lavish production, a prominent departure from Kozelek's largely acoustic catalog.
Whether the album will deliver the level of success Kozelek enjoyed with Red House Painters seems inconsequential, but as the packed house at First Unitarian Church showed last night, he still has a considerable amount of loyal fans waiting in the wings. Throughout his two-hour set, it seemed entirely conceivable he might float out of his chair at any moment, suspended above the stage in a state of intently focused performance. Kozelek hung closely to every note during the show, graciously giving fans exactly what they paid for and more.
Personal Bias: Sun Kil Moon is my go-to mope music.
The Crowd: Chloe Sevigny, the kid from Almost Famous and a gaggle of other pale white folk.
Random Notebook Dump: As great of a musician as he is, I definitely wouldn't want Mark Kozelek as my neighbor.
I Know It's Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life
Sunshine In Chicago
Grey Ice Water (Modest Mouse Cover)
Baby In Death Can I Rest Next To Your Grave
Have You Forgotten
Send In The Clowns
That Bird Has A Broken Wing
Track Number 8
I Killed Mommy (Dayglo Abortions Cover)
Carpet Crawlers (Genesis Cover)
Carry Me Ohio
The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. the Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man
You Missed My Heart
You Are My Sun
Get Along Home Cindy
Green Hell (Misfits Cover)