In my recent review of Sun Kil Moon‘s latest release, Admiral Fell Promises, I make the bold assertion that Mark Kozelek is not a happy person. Though I don’t know the Ohioan on a personal level, judging from his haunting guitar balladry, I figured I had the guy pinned down as a mope. That’s why it came as such a shock to me when the Music Hall of Williamsburg filled with uproarious laughter after each bit of Kozelek’s between-song banter. For all his gorgeously dark strumming and full bodied crooning on ill-fated love, the guy is, dare I say, funny. Sure, it’s a bitter, dry humor, but Kozelek had the crowd laughing like it was Mitch Hedberg up there.
Stepping out onto the stage to his foldable chair and classical guitar, he commented on the warm colored lighting, “I feel like Santa Clause.” Some laughs rippled through the crowd. But, almost as if he possessed an inner switch, he instantaneously turned off his hilarity and lapsed into the lush fingerpicking of “Alesund”. Eyes closed, he soared through the song’s beautifully skittish notes. Once he opened his mouth, his smoky howl sounded as full and deep as on record, echoing about the dead silent crowd.
I say dead silent, but that’s sort of a lie. I never would have thought to find loud-mouthed hecklers at a Mark Kozelek show of all places, but there was at least one, and he was sitting right in front of me. Interrupting Kozelek’s intricate musings by shouting loud, albeit positive compliments, he had many in attendance baffled and annoyed, contaminating the eerie mood every few minutes with a whistle or a “Master!” Leave it to New York to fill out its usually false stereotypes. This guy was loud. But luckily, the infamously curmudgeonly Kozelek didnt seem phased by the shouting, playing his nylon stringed guitar with utter perfection and splendor to the otherwise transfixed, silent audience. It was certainly not ideal and had the crowd feeling some collective tension. Eventually, Kozelek did adress the guy’s disruptive noises and commentary: “What’s with the guy over there?” which eased the mood with some chuckles. The man left sometime early in the set, but that certainly wasn’t the end of “audience participation.”
“Have you been taking classical guitar lessons?” asked an audience member in a gap between songs, impressed by the 43 year-old’s virtuosic flamenco-classical guitar chops. Kozelek responded with his signature, sour wit, “No, it’s ’cause I dont fuck around on Facebook. People say, ‘You’re so gifted.’ I’m not fucking gifted. I’ve been working at this for years. Quit fucking around on Facebook and you’ll get good at something.” As with most of his comments, applause and laughter followed naturally. You couldn’t really deny the truth in his negativity.
The comedy, which included stabs at Williamsburg as “a town of clones”, helped lighten the mood between the woeful tunes Kozelek bellowed out for his 14-song set. The performance consisted of mostly new material, with some old standbys tossed in, all stripped down and turned classical. Even “Carry Me Ohio” was a slower, fingerpicked affair. But even if classical guitar wasnt your thing, Kozelek’s skills were simply astounding.
Watching his nimble fingers run up and down the neck, hammering and tapping as he fingerpicked gorgeous melodies of songs like “Half Moon Bay” was truly fascinating. He’s one of those performers that can either inspire someone to want to master an instrument or to give up on their musical endeavors altogether. He is that good. While he plays what sounds like two guitars at once, his smooth, musky voice fills the room. He makes it look easy, but it most certainly is not.
As he reemerged for his encore, a pleased fan jokingly yelled out, “Don’t make me cry anymore!” I’m sure others shared the sentiment.
Although he would argue otherwise, Kozelek is most certainly gifted. His talents are obvious to anybody who witnesses them. As I watched and listened Monday night, I came to the realization that this man was born to do exactly this. On top of that, I dreamed up a world where he was trapped behind a desk crunching numbers or typing up cover letters. It seemed entirely implausible. One way or another, this guy was going to pick up a guitar. If you don’t believe me, get yourself to a Mark Kozelek show. Bring some tissues.
Duk Koo Kim
Half Moon Bay
You are My Sun
Carry Me Ohio
The Leaning Tree
All Mixed Up
* From memory and notes, help if you can.