Two songs into his July 24th concert at New York's Town Hall, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, leading his sepulchral combo Sun Kil Moon, made a comment about the lighting on stage. The few red and blue spotlights overhead, he said in a dry rumble through acres of reverb, were too bright. Could the guy at the console in the balcony dial them back?
Kozelek, the former leader of the Nineties prairie-Gothic band Red House Painters, was already hovering on the margins of the evening: sitting on a chair to the far left of his musicians – drummer Eric Pollard, electric guitarist Nick Zubeck, keyboard player Chris Connolly and guest cellist Isabel Castelvi – and at an unusual distance from his own microphone, as if trying to deliver this performance from another room. When those lights dimmed, Kozelek seemed to recede further into dusk.
The effect was actually a dramatic reduction of distance: a pulling across Kozelek's bridge of baritone sighs, through all of that echo, to the blunt, stormy center of his stories and the small, effective explosions of instrumental detail lining his telling. When Pollard, who played with brushes, put some wrist into a snare beat or tom-tom accent, it went off like a gunshot in a well. After Zubeck broke out a rare solo in "Dogs," from the latest Sun Kil Moon album, Benji, Kozolek drolly noted the outsized effect of its simple, fuzzy turbulence on his barbed-hush memoir of teenage sexual awakening to the strains of Pink Floyd's Animals. "That was awesome," Kozolek said with a small grin at Zubeck. "All four notes."
The Sounds of Silence
Kozelek's minimalism – a suspense of long notes and deep breaths; acute, emotional dissection unspooled in winding, narrative recall and jolts of confessional eloquence, amplified by resonance instead of attack – is one of alternative rock's longest-running wonders: fully born on Red House Painters' 1992 debut, Down Colorful Hill; hardly exhausted after more than 30 releases just in this century as a solo artist and with Sun Kil Moon. Benji is one of Kozelek's best under any name: a frank, gripping meditation on aging, unresolved loss and the determination to keep going and be heard because, well, that's the gig. "Ben's My Friend," the last song on Benji, ends like this:"My meltdown passed back to the studio/Doin' 12-hour shifts singin' a song about one thing or another."
Kozelek did not play that one at Town Hall. But there was an extended segment of quiet, charismatic storms from that record, including "Carissa," "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" and "Micheline." Kozelek also noted an early inspiration for his obsession with the power and colors in restraint. "Though I loved the sound of the roarin' Les Paul guitar/What spoke to me most was 'Rain Song,'" he sang in Benji's Led Zeppelin homage "I Saw the Film The Song Remains the Same." Kozelek made a lot of rain himself: soft, circular showers of arpeggio, played on an acoustic guitar perched high on one knee. He dropped thunder too, in his way. When Kozelek came out of the Benji set, it was with the soft-bomb fuck-you from last year's Mark Kozelek and Desertshore: "Hey You Bastards, I'm Still Here."
A Live Wire
Something you didn't need the lights to appreciate: Kozelek's lethal sense of humor, which cut the shadows with nuanced levity. When Kozelek politely asked the standard rock-show question, "How's everybody doing?", someone upfront, unhappy with the volume, hollered "Louder!" "I asked how you were feeling," Kozelek replied curtly, "not for your criticism." The laughter from the crowd was loaded with nervous relief – that someone else took that one on the chin.
There was also a short barrage of howls and requests during the encore, which Kozelek hosed down with a brief story. He reflected on his own experiences at concerts, going to bad shows by good people "like early Cat Power," he cracked gently. But Kozelek insisted he would never have had the arrogance "to yell out stuff like that." He got a few laughs.
Kozelek also got everyone's attention – again.