LIVE REVIEW: Mark Kozelek at Largo, September 17, 2010

Former Red House Painters’ frontman, one-time (Almost Famous) Stillwater bassist and current Sun Kil Moon impresario Mark Kozelek wrapped up the second of two solo performances at Los Angeles’ Largo last Friday night.

Touring solitarily in support of the recently released Sun Kil Moon set Admiral Fell Promises (effectively the work of a soloist anyway), Kozelek delivered an exhibition centered around that album, fleshed out with odds and ends and selections from other realms of his career, in what was to be an almost two-hour performance.

Which was either good news or bad news.

Red House Painters' frontman Mark Kozelek, circa the mid-90's

Mark Kozelek back when he painted houses red, or exclusively painted only red houses, you decide (photo by author).

Taking the stage to enthusiastic applause, which he promptly met by sipping some water and tuning his guitar for a few moments in uncomfortable silence, Kozelek delicately plucked out the introduction to “Alesund,” Admiral Fell Promises‘ moody opener, before ultimately offering its first verse of “No, this is not my guitar/I’m bringing it to a friend…” and executing the song to perfect completion.

And therein laid the problem: that sequence, which was the essence of his performance, was something of a wash/rinse/repeat merry-go-round for the entirety of the show, with little deviation. After tuning his guitar between numbers, wiping his hand with a towel and more or less dismissing the audience (more on that below), Kozelek played the same type of slow-tempo’d numbers over and over, which typically consisted of descending arpeggios, vocal delivery heavily informed by 60’s British folkies such as Bert Jansch and Nick Drake — with barely three different inflections — and some sort of incongruous etude or Julian Bream-ish flourishes about halfway through each song.

To be fair, Sun Kil Moon’s Admiral Fell Promises is an incredibly engaging body specifically because it doesn’t alter from its gentle whisper-to-a-different-whisper format from song to song. And in the live setting, selections such as “Half Moon Bay,” “Third And Seneca,” “You Are My Sun” and AFP‘s title track were positively hypnotic and graceful. But without any variance, and with the singer’s near-sardonic regard for his own audience, each subsequent song’s nearly identical, dynamic-less treatment wound an increasingly tight web that weighted the whole show as self-indulgent, monotonous and yawn-inducing, so much so that a slow egress of audience members started around the 60-minute mark, just halfway through their $30 investment.

Even when Kozelek took a surprise detour through Modest Mouse’s “Dramamine,” about a third through his set, hardly anyone seemed appreciative, possibly due to the fact that it was reproduced in a sonic manner that echoed everything that had come before it, and was therefore barely recognizable.

As previously mentioned, Kozelek, who was described to me by a former performing colleague of his as “pretty much a tool, who’s really just all about drinking and fucking chicks,” accompanied himself on nylon string acoustic guitar — demonstrating formidable prowess on the instrument throughout the evening. And in case anyone wasn’t sure that his guitar playing was impressive, he offered the following non-sequitur between songs, apropos of nothing: “People say to me, ‘Mark you’re so gifted…’ I’m not gifted, I just fucking practice.”

Such was the tone of Kozelek’s addresses to the crowd through the show; most often they consisted of some sort of passive self-aggrandizement and/or comedic attempt by way of borderline contempt for the people who paid for the privilege of seeing him perform.

“You guys are slightly less of a dead fuck than last night’s [audience],” said Kozelek by way of greeting the remaining Largo crowd for his second and final encore.  Obliging a patron’s request for Red House Painters’ “Cruiser” off 2001’s Old Ramon, Kozelek fumbled through the verses as he struggled to recall the words to his own composition. When some help came from the same audience member who made the request, Kozelek acknowledged his contribution by deadpanning “internet geeks,” which elicited laughter from the house, until moments later, failing to recollect another verse, Kozelek bluntly asked “what’s next, internet geek?” in soliciting help to finish the song. The comedic effect was not the same.

Similarly, earlier in the night, as Kozelek and the audience were trying to figure out the origin of a strange noise emanating from the house p.a. (a noise that most 13-year-olds knows is caused when a cell phone is positioned too close to a speaker as it receives data), Kozelek responded to a crowd member’s suggestion that it had “something to do with the frequency” by inquiring “what are you, a fucking scientist?” Again, more laughs, but more like the kind that come in response to the presence of a bully, not the kind that come from mining comic gold.

Art comes in all forms, and Kozelek’s two-decade success as a musician in his various incarnations cannot be doubted. Whether or not he’s truly “just all about drinking and fucking chicks” is not likely something that will ever easily be confirmed from an audience perspective, but he did firmly establish himself as “pretty much a tool” during his second-night show at Largo, regardless of the subjectivity of comedy. Still, that hardly makes him the first artist in history whose outside ugliness belied some sort of improbable beauty that resided within. It’s doubtful someone such as himself is open to suggestion, but with a little editing, there’s no reason the remaining shows on his current tour can’t be something worthy of reverence, or at least on par with the catalog of well-regarded, if not laconically sublime albums he’s given us.

“If I break a nail, I’m fucked,” Kozelek said of his groomed, right-hand fingers partway through the night. And he’s right — because if he can’t play guitar, there’s not likely a lot of benefit to be gained by spending time with him otherwise.

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