Mark Kozelek is a musician unafraid of risk.
Mark Kozelek is a musician unafraid of risk. Beyond putting out multiple albums each year and occasionally making waves in the press, Kozelek also appears to enjoy challenging himself on the stage as well. He could easily tour on past glories such as his much-loved Red House Painters material, yet Kozelek constantly pushes himself and his audiences by playing only newer material. His show last week at Portland’s Aladdin Theater took all of Kozelek’s maximalist tendencies and splattered them all over the stage. Not only did he play a nearly three-hour set, Kozelek was flanked by seven musicians, three of whom he had only met that day when he rolled into town from Seattle.
Clad in a dark suit, Kozelek spent the entire show sans instrument. Instead he paced the stage with a microphone. The only light bathing the singer was residual illumination that came off the rest of the band, making it difficult to see his face. To Kozelek’s left sat a three-piece string section of Portland string players, two violins and a cello that added depth to the songs. Kozelek began with “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails,” an epic song from Perils from the Sea, his 2013 collaboration with the Album Leaf’s Jimmy Lavalle. Restrained on record, “Somehow the Wonder” turned into a soaring emotional journey. Directed by Magik*Magik’s Minna Choi from her keyboard, Kozelek’s backing players transformed his already rich music into something magical.
Kozelek has evolved from his Red House Painters days, performing songs that saw him in crooner mode (“Micheline”) to sing/talking rants (“Astronomy”) to even emitting the fearsome bellows (“Dogs”) that Kozelek seemed to develop in recent years. Certain tendencies have also cropped in Kozelek’s work. He sings about friendships, death, girlfriends and true crime. Watching him perform “Dogs,” which is essentially his sexual history in verse, can be uncomfortable. Yet, Kozelek isn’t fucking around. He even said so himself when expressing surprise at the 10-year-old boy in the front row, claiming his songs were beyond R-rated. Yet, he paused more than once to fist-bump the boy and ask him questions about his interests and his parents. That Mark Kozelek is such a paradox!
In between songs, Kozelek’s banter toed the line between confrontational and tender. When he compared himself to Bono and claimed that he inspired Sleep to record Dopesmoker, it was unclear just how much was tongue-in-cheek and how much actually ego. He even thanked the crowd for not pissing him off. Phew, because I was worried there for a moment but he kindly pushed aside a request to play “Medicine Bottle.” Kozelek also appears to have a love-hate relationship with Portland. He openly lamented that all his Bay Area friends have moved up here, but also dedicated “The Black Butterfly” to Elliott Smith.
A three-hour show is an endurance test, yet Kozelek earned every moment on that stage. Even after complaining about the length of “Beautiful You” and debating whether to play it or not during the encore, Kozelek opted to give us more, even after arguing with a woman who shouted he should “do it for Elliott!” Even after that 15-minute song, Kozelek still had the strength to end the show with a stirring version of “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.” It was a transcendent moment from a show made up of so many instances. Kozelek on an acoustic guitar can be magical, but this iteration of Sun Kil Moon pushed his artistry even further.