Dreamy (and Tense?): Mark Kozelek at the Highline Ballroom, NYC
I’m not sure whether I’m establishing a pattern of some kind, but once again I’m writing about one of my experiences hearing live music in New York City. On offer today are my reflections on a performance by Mark Kozelek at the Highline Ballroom last Friday, 13 June (maybe the date had something to do with some of the weirdness of the evening).
Kozelek is perhaps best-known as the leader of Red House Painters (RHP), who recorded for 4AD in the 1990s, before striking out on his own with a series of idiosyncratic solo projects as well as work by the “band” Sun Kil Moon (SKM)—he also had a bit part as the bassist in the fictional band in the movie Laurel Canyon. Along the way, he has distinguished himself as a purveyor of mesmerizingly simple acoustic epics, churning dirges and bracing paeans to the power of the distorted electric guitar. In all of those situations, his lyrics present miniature portraits of people and emotional landscapes—always introspective, often tortured—that fully exploit the evocative potentials of language. Among the best examples are “Medicine Bottle” and “Michael” from the first RHP album, Down Colorful Hill; “Katy Song” from the first eponymous album by the group (informally known as “Rollercoaster”); “San Geronimo” and “Drop” from Ocean Beach; “Void” and “Cruiser” from RHP’s final album Old Ramon; and “Carry Me Ohio” and “Duk Koo Kim” from the first SKM album, Ghosts of the Great Highway.
The sheer length and downbeat lyrical themes of many of those songs have led critics to describe Kozelek’s work as part of a loosely constituted category alternately called “slowcore,” “sadcore” or “valium rock,” among other designations. Groups and performers whose outlook seems similar for those critics are American Music Club, Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval, Low and perhaps, more recently, Great Lake Swimmers. Of late, Kozelek’s live performances have tended to stay more on the acoustic side as he reinterprets and simplifies much of his earlier material for presentation by him and another acoustic guitarist.
That was the setup on Friday. After a set of initially promising tunes by opening act Eugene, Kozelek walked to the center of the stage to enthusiastic applause, while Phil Carney, also with an acoustic guitar, took a position stage right in relative darkness. The former’s interactions with the audience were funny, if a little unprecedented and eccentric. Mere minutes after coming out, for example, he suggested that a young man standing directly in front of him was making him feel nervous and offered said man $50 to exchange places with a woman who was standing a few spots over. I couldn’t see the man or hear his reply, but he apparently asked Kozelek to make good on the offer. Kozelek pulled out the money, and the man moved. It was good for a laugh, and the show went on.
For the most part, the show was great. The selections covered material from Kozelek’s nearly 20 years as a semi-famous rock performer. Among the highlights for me were his playing “Summer Dress” (from Ocean Beach), “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” (from Tiny Cities, an SKM album of covers of songs by Modest Mouse), “River” (from Old Ramon), and both of the songs mentioned previously from the first SKM album. After agreeing with my disappointment at the blandness of opener Eugene’s lyrics and songcraft, my friend Amy observed very quickly that Kozelek’s music, though seemingly simpler, sounded much more rewarding, sonically and lyrically rich.
That’s not to say that everything was great. While at the beginning, his banter with the audience seemed funny and innocuous, things built up to the point where I really started to wonder whether something was wrong. Thus, when he suggested to one audience member that s/he might enjoy the show more by attending to it rather than a digital camera or to another that it was a bit weird take lots of pictures of a man tuning his guitar, many in the audience laughed along with him. But when he ended several elegiac tunes—whose final chords should have been allowed to linger and fade—with abrupt tacets, his behavior had me and Amy puzzled. The best explanation I could offer, and it was a lame one, was that maybe it was an anti-bootlegging strategy. Likewise, when he stopped a song to request that the lighting person stick with static rather than swirling lights (because the swirling made it hard for him to concentrate), we laughed along, but a bit more nervously. After visually expressing his annoyance with RF interference during a couple of consecutive songs, he almost snarkily told one audience member, who was holding up a camera phone, “cell phones cause that noise.”
The two most bizarre interactions, though, came close to the end of the show. In the first, he explained why Carney was appearing visibly annoyed and sometimes not playing at all. Carney, Kozelek said, was mad because Kozelek’s playing was becoming erratic/inconsistent. Coupled with the stress of touring as a duo, the looseness of Kozelek’s performances were starting to strain what is apparently a long and productive friendship. While it seemed that Kozelek’s heart was perhaps in the right place, it seemed that, by sharing that information, he was telling tales out of school. In the second interaction, after the show proper had ended and Kozelek came out to do a few more songs solo (occasionally looking over his head—to see whether Carney was coming out?), an audience member yelled out, “You look a little tense!” Kozelek replied by saying that touring, playing for 600 people a night, and seeing a friendship dissolve would be enough to make anyone tense. Then he added something about people just not understanding the kind of life he was leading. A few people booed at that point.
In the end, I’m willing to accept his explanations at face value, even if it seemed at points that he was hostile to (some members of) the audience or sharing too much information. The show, after all, was great. I came to hear him perform under better circumstances than when I last saw him (at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor on the first hot day of 2002—when the air conditioning malfunctioned forcing me and my friend Erik to leave the show early or risk heat exhaustion), and I was rewarded with something magical. If there’s any downside to being in NYC as I write this, it’s that I don’t have the RHP, SKM and Kozelek catalogs with me. I really can’t wait until Monday or Tuesday to hear all of those songs again…