The Tuning Fork in Auckland, NZ was packed last night for an experience that I can only describe as intriguing, thoughtful, unique, and laugh out loud funny. And then there was the music that somehow managed to be all of the above. I’ve been to more gigs than most and can honestly say I have never seen anything like this before.
Born out of the indie rock band Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon is really the guise that showcases the incredibly diverse personality and capability of Mark Kozelek. More a project now of Mark’s, even the moniker Sun Kil Moon, which was named after Korean super flyweight boxer Sung-Kil Moon, is interesting.
There is an incredible underground following of this man and the band he fronts, and to add to the mystique there were no photographers allowed, and cell phones were a no-no. Not a bad ploy if you want to maintain a shroud of anonymity... something rarely seen these days in our world of social media. This itself was quite refreshing I must say.
So this article is more a picture of the show than a review. Radio 13’s Wellington writer Ruben Mita will be doing the real hard work with a review soon, allowing me the indulgence of stretching out a little and trying to do the whole experience justice.
There was a buzz of excitement and anticipation when I entered the Tuning Fork. The punters were an eclectic mix, offering the odd nod to each other, conveying the unspoken message of being in a select group who had discovered something pretty cool that most of the unwashed hadn’t. The show was so sought after that I had to attend the gig by myself but, as luck would have it, a friend of mine Dave and his mate were there. Dave and I shared a scant knowledge of the band, but his friend was a true disciple. It became pretty obvious most of the audience was the same.
The stage was sparse with just a keyboard and technical gear to help with the percussion and a music stand, much like you would see in front of a violinist when playing in an orchestra. In a dimly lit setting, it was clear this was not going to be a band event; it felt more like the sort of reading performed in the old days by the likes of Dickens, sharing his own stories with the public. As it turned out, this wasn’t too far from the truth as the night unfolded.
Mark Kozelek sauntered onto the stage dressed in a double-breasted suit and looking like he could have come from the cast of The Sopranos, along with his keyboardist Ben Boye who has been with the band since 2016. They were met with a rapturous welcome, which gave me a little fright, to be honest, given the understated nature of the crowd before then. They had been the quietest I’ve ever heard at a gig, with only whispers at best breaking the tension before his arrival.
Armed with a mic and a wave, Kozelek kicked off proceedings by thanking everyone for coming. He began with a little ditty he’d written a couple of hours earlier in his hotel room and suggested that it probably had the most f@#king awesome melody that has ever been written. On cue, the crowd erupted with laughter, a theme that carried on through the whole night.
It’s here that you understand why there was a lectern of sorts to hold all his songs and lyrics. Many of the songs were over 10 minutes long and he needed the sheet of lyrics in front of him, given the number of words he used to tell his stories. In this example, it was all about getting a bottle of water and enjoying the somewhat mystical wares of the Warehouse, where everything seemed to only cost $4.
The performance really was a journey of the mundane that Mark Kozelek turned into the trip of a lifetime. This is what he does. His experience is captured with a poetic style that has little melody but survives on how he delivers the rhythm and timing, along with the keyboards of Ben Boye who paved the path he took you along.
There was plenty of name-checking as well. Neil Finn is a fan and turned up at the last gig (so he must be cool right?). Kozelek had hoped that Neil could come along this time as well, but when he phoned before hitting our shores, Neil replied he was busy playing with Fleetwood Mac... Fleetwood bloody Mac well la-di-f#*king-da replied Kozelek, mocking anyone who could do that instead of seeing him. He then proceeded to ask the crowd who was he replacing? Lindsay Buckingham (ex lead guitarist and songwriter of said band) of course the crowd replied, and with a shake of his head, he went back to his next dissertation. This one was about flying into Brisbane, where he must have had a hell of a landing because the song went over ten minutes again, managing to incorporate koalas and kangaroos along the way.
This is what it was like for most of the show, incredibly long songs in many cases, and storytelling along the way injected with black humour and laughter. The other thing that hit me was the complete silence of the crowd. Essentially hanging on every word that fell from the keys played and the description of his feelings and experience. Whether it was a time with Elliot Smith or Ariel Pink (who he thought would have been a rock legend in the 70s) to name just a few. He wove tales with these artists in mind about the dark shadows of fame and the consequences they bring, along with the irony of his home country that he loves so much but that disappoints him at the same time.
He even took the opportunity to give a nod to Bon Scott, a fan from way back, and sang a remake of the classic Bad Boy Boogie track off Let There Be Rock. He turned the song into something quite special and gentle, showcasing in a single spotlight just how good his lyrics really are when read like a poem and delivered with a voice that gives warmth and feeling.
Is he a singer or a poet? A comedy act with soul and affection, a gifted conversationalist ... or just a very thoughtful actor who has found a niche that is both intriguing and frustrating at the same time.
This was how the rest of the night went. Upon reflection, there were times I thought what the hell is this really all about. Is he a singer or a poet? A comedy act with soul and affection, a gifted conversationalist that has been born against the rages of social media and technological jiggery or just a very thoughtful actor who has found a niche that is both intriguing and frustrating at the same time.
I came to the decision that it was all of that and more, which makes his style of music unique and, in many cases, not really that accessible to the mainstream. In his words, I suspect that is just how Mark f#@king likes it and wouldn’t have it any other way.
What I do know is I will go out and try to find an album or two that will sit in my collection with pride, as well as take the chance to spread the word about someone that most have never heard before. Does that mean I’m now a fan? I honestly don’t know, but I do know I will go back and see him again and that is saying something.