Mark Kozelek sits on his stool, Spanish guitar in hand, like an old, ornery man might sit on his stoop, sneering at kids who pass by, and raising his fist at anything that blocks his view of a world he doesnt want to see anyhow. He’s a curmudgeon. He’s funny, sure, but only because of the nasty, occasionally insensitive words he throws at his audience. He isn’t happy to be anywhere, and he certainly isn’t happy to sit before you, singing sad songs so that you can feel something.
Once his fingertips knock against his nylon-stringed guitar, though, he could be Joseph Stalin and youd still listen. He’s a six-string-toting Jekyll and Hyde.
Last night’s show at the Howard Theater was no different. No photos were permitted, of course. And the first thing Kozelek said was to the theater’s light tech, telling her to turn them all down, because he could see the audience all too well. God forbid he should have to look any of us in the eye.
Kozelek began with a shaky “Alesund”. The song’s wilting flamenco stuttered out into the air, in somewhat inconsistent time. Kozelek’s voice clung to the song’s arpeggios, trying to find its perfect place, but never quite getting there. Then, when it was time to end, the song stopped abruptly, Kozelek dampening the strings’ vibrations as if he’d been bothering us all with the sounds. Every single song would end in a similar fashion–deliberately sudden instead of with any sort of grace. Why should it be any other way?
In some ways, last night felt like an “off-night” for Kozelek, but what’s interesting is that for Kozelek, an off-night is just part of the experience. It’s easy to see that he’s perfectly capable of perfection, but that sometimes he just doesn’t feel up to it. Kozelek isn’t a bullshitter, and in many ways, watching him effortlessly churn out virtuosic slow-menco grants insight into his immense talents and personality. There’s comfort in hearing and seeing somebody as talented as Kozelek take it easy, playing the songs as he would in his bedroom or in your living room. With Kozelek, you get to hear songs spanning decades, like Red House Painters‘ “Mistress”, played with understated grace — buttressed by an inevitable impatience with the world. Lucky for us all, “off” for Kozelek is “on” by anybody else’s standards.
Among the Leaves tracks like “Elaine” fit in perfectly, played with understated beauty. “UK Blues” was a necessary addition, inviting laughter from the crowd, and providing additional insight into Kozelek’s misshapen, bitter worldview. By the time he reached “Mistress”, “Track #8”, and the encore’s “Among the Leaves”, “Carry Me Ohio”, “Duk Koo Kim” power-punch, Kozelek had certainly found his footing– only because he felt like searching for something. “Carry Me Ohio”‘s flamenco twist inserted rumble strips into a song as fluid as they come. This newfound difficulty felt at home. A depressed spin on the usually jaunty folk standard “Get Along Home Cindy” was a treat, proving nothing can stand up to Kozelek’s sad wrath.
I couldn’t help but laugh for much of the show. Kozelek is absolutely hilarious. His songs are some of the most emotionally driven, heartbreaking compositions I have ever heard in my life, but he plays them in between heckling the audience and responding to whatever sort of requests middle-aged men throw his way during his set. He’s like a bully with a knack for beautiful acoustic guitar-based songs of helplessness. For a guy who’s so notorious for getting annoyed with a crowd, there’s always a few jokesters who will yell “That was good, Mark,” or “Mark, have you forgotten!?” They feed into the whole act, and he eats it up like hors d’ouvres at a wedding for a niece he never knew.
Last night, Mark took a creepy liking to a girl named Michelle in the front row (if you’re reading this, Michelle, I’d like to hear your side of the story), derided a few folks up front “taking notes” instead of “enjoying the show” (“It’s like fucking somebody but they’re kind of falling asleep while you fuck them. It’s not very inspiring”), and made fun of his driver/piano accompaniment, Deserthshore’s Chris Connolly, in front of the entire crowd. It was just another night for Mark. It was an awkward, occasionally beautiful treat for the rest of us. Sneer away, Mark.
Missed My Heart (New Song)
Ceiling Gazing (New Song)
That Bird Has a Broken Wing
Celebrated Summer (HÃ¼sker DÃ¼)
You Are My Sun
Get Along Home Cindy (Folk Standard)
The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man
Mistress (Red House Painters)
Half Moon Bay
Among the Leaves
Carry Me Ohio
Duk Koo Kim