Sitting in a century-old church on Saturday night, it occurred to Mark Kozelek that he, too, wasn’t getting any younger.
“I’m happy to still be in business after 21 years,” he said. During a two-hour-plus solo set at Los Angeles’ First Unitarian Church, the last stop on his current tour, Kozelek was at turns grateful and playfully cranky, taking swipes at fans and fellow artists during salty, self-deprecating exchanges with the audience. On last year’s Among the Leaves, the former Red House Painters frontman’s latest as Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek presented a collection of frank, surprisingly funny songs, with lyrics touching on aging, the death of a friend and the rigors of touring and songwriting life. His set drew heavily on that album, playing songs including “Elaine,” “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life,” “The Winery” “Track Number 8,” and “Sunshine in Chicago,” a song that drew a knowing laugh when he sang, “My band played here in the Nineties when we had/lots of female fans and fuck, they all were cute/now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.”
There were many of those gentlemen in attendance on Saturday, sporting greying stubble and holding rolled-up limited-run prints depicting the church’s impressive visage. Despite the sanctified environment, the crowd grew rowdy and restless between the hushed songs, perhaps a sign of pent-up demand: Kozelek’s appearance was his first L.A. show since a pair of dates at Largo in 2010. “Nice haircut, turn it up,” one cat-called after Kozelek finished the exacting fingerpicking of his opening song. “I appreciate your criticisms so quickly into my set,” he responded dryly. Later, he opened the floor for discussion: “What are you listening to?” someone called out, a question that seemed to take him aback. “Andres Segovia, classical guitar albums,” he said, laying into the generation of melancholic artists who’ve followed in his footsteps. “What are you listening to, besides Bon Iver and fuckin’ Jose Gonzalez? And Fleet Foxes?” He did not receive a satisfactory response.
But for those wondering what happened to the full-band sound of albums such as “Ghosts of the Great Highway” and “April,” Kozelek’s fascination with Spanish guitar was a revealing admission. He’s played little else on recent albums: Of the dozen-plus studio and live recordings the prolific label head has released in the eight years since founding his own Caldo Verde Records, most have focused on intricate arpeggios. That attention was on full display on Saturday, as Kozelek travelled effortlessly from low rumble to bright fretwork high on the neck. As a singer, he remains charismatic but understated: On “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Woman vs. the Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man,” the self-lacerating chronicle of a romantic encounter with a younger singer, his voice reached briefly into his upper register, a sound absent for much of the night as he fought off the fading assault of a week-old cold.
He interspersed the recent songs with old classics, playing a lovely version of “Have You Forgotten” and upping the volume on “Ghosts” standby “Carry Me Ohio,” which he delivered as the set’s lone strummer. He interrupted the more biographical material with covers including a weary “Send in the Clowns” and “I Killed Mommy,” a track from his latest release, the covers album Like Rats. The singer, promoting Among the Leaves and an April-due collaboration with the Album Leaf, didn’t have the chance to mention the set. “I have like 45 albums out,” he apologized. On Saturday night, no one seemed to mind.