Concert Reviews

Concert Review: Sun Kil Moon Presents The Kozelek Ego Show

Where: San Fran, Wellington NZ
When: 26 May 2019
Ruben Mita

A Sun Kil Moon gig in 2019 is a unique experience and not one with many reference points for comparison. Last night Mark Kozelek gifted/inflicted a three-and-a-half-hour performance upon Wellington’s San Fran; a performance that was at times touching, funny, painful, uncomfortable, brilliant and sleep-inducing.

Anyone reading this is already familiar with the path Kozelek has taken in recent years, embracing mundanity and unedited diaristic lyrics to an extreme that hasn’t to my knowledge been pursued before. Last time he was in New Zealand he was already well into this phase and delivered an entertaining and accomplished performance, backed by a full band. In the two years since then, he has released a further five long-winded albums of his everyday ramblings. This time around, Kozelek was armed only with his hand-held microphone, a music stand of lyric sheets, and pianist Ben Boye, supplying the sole musical backing. Without the musical variation of a full band, it was up to Mark’s lyrics to hold up the entire set.

The unavoidable fact is that every second other middle-aged man from Ohio could write just as many interesting things about their everyday life as Mark Kozelek (in fact many of them probably more so, as Mark’s current life seems to involve mostly sitting on aeroplanes and complaining about cafe food.) But only one middle-aged man from Ohio comes packaged with a voice so familiar from much-loved older albums, from Benji to Admiral Fell Promises or even up to as late as Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood. If you really strain your imagination, you can even make out the ghost of the younger voice who sang Red House Painters to cult fame in the ’90s. And the recognisability of a voice is, in the end, its main strength.

Like when I saw The Brian Jonestown Massacre last year in the same venue, the set last night was riddled with a sense of unpredictability and instability. It was essentially The Mark Kozelek Ego Show, and when the ego in focus belongs to someone as famously prickly and temperamental as that, anything can happen. With so many different talking points, I’ve decided to give a chronological outline of only the most notable events.

  • The duo open with Somehow The Wonder Of Life Prevails. Kozelek is playing the woke preacher with significant things to say, all in black reading from his lectern of lyrics. His delivery is touching though, and I actually love his spoken word style and the way you have no clue where the next line is going to go.

  • Kozelek decides to cover Minnie Riperton’s Lovin’ You because he heard it in a cafe. Has forgotten/doesn’t care that years of spoken word have robbed him of all melodic judgement. Bad, but this early on it’s still funny.

  • I’m Not Laughing At You is a highlight, the crowd laughing along at his stories about overseas perceptions of Americans. He swings between serious disgust at gun violence, humorous competition with England (“We gave the world Bob Dylan and Lou Reed/Who did you give, Sting?”,) and his usual food-related anecdotes. In probably his most significant lyric, a lady in the song tells him he shows signs of megalomania and he says he doesn’t care.

  • Kozelek gets annoyed at the fact that the San Fran bathrooms are next to the stage, interrupting his “nuances” with the sound of the door opening and closing.

  • An unreleased piece documenting his last week of travel between Australia, Auckland and Wellington, the last section of which he wrote earlier that day. His long tangent about how an Andre Segovia CD he bought at Cuba Street’s Slow Boat Records changed his life and inspired much of his music was touching and personal, performed here on the same street. 

  • Truck Driver from Benji, yay. One of his great songs, done beautifully.

  • Kozelek has had enough with the sounds from the bathroom and addresses the venue directly, asking them to put a bouncer by the entry and only let people in every 20 minutes “or this show ends now. I’m fifty-fucking two and I can stand up here for three hours without pissing.” Nervous laughter. A bouncer is deployed.

  • Mark Kozelek performs a song called The Mark Kozelek Museum, from his album Mark Kozelek. Yeah. Gets the audience to chant the word ”diarrhoea” over and over. Contains the line “No one could accuse me or Ariel Pink of ever being boring.” People titter, unsure whether that was supposed to draw a laugh or not.  

  • Did I mention his little arms-swaying dance he does to the piano while standing there between lines? Surprisingly cute and out-of-character.

  • Kozelek asks the crowd whether they want to hear a cover of Frank Sinatra’s Moon River or ACDC’s Bad Boy Boogie. Not one to deprive himself of microphone time, he decides to do both. The former is sung awfully, the latter surprisingly well.

  • Kozelek has a long conversation with the front of the crowd about New Zealand film recommendations, which unsurprisingly turns into a one-sided monologue.

  • My Love For You Is Undying is surprisingly great, with a beautiful melody, but is soured by the privileged pettiness of Mark’s anecdotes about getting into fights with first a waiter and then a bookstore owner over essentially nothing.  

  • Kozelek asks for requests and someone shouts (jokingly?) for This Is My Dinner. Mark ignores the other answers and decides to “punish” everyone (his own words) with the ten-minute-plus spoken-word ode to Norway.

  • Kozelek gets up Jeremy Taylor, the owner of Slow Boat Records, for unplanned duets on Sonny And Cher’s I Got You Babe and the Benji classic I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love. Awkward, but Taylor nails the vocals. Preceded by a lengthy rant about how much Kozelek loves/really fucking hates Kurt Vile.

  • Despite having promised to leave four songs ago, Kozelek keeps going well over the three-hour mark, because, as he reminds us, it's the last time he’ll be on stage for a few months. Wraps up with Black Butterfly.

  • I only notice towards the end that the initially sold-out venue is now half-empty. I wonder how long most people lasted.

Despite this self-indulgent mess, the most confusing thing was not anything that came out of the Koz’s mouth, but rather the fact that I enjoyed the night.

Nostalgia is perhaps the most powerful force on our music tastes, and the weight of the masses of brilliant past records brought into being by the arrogant middle-aged man on stage was easily enough to make his ramblings interesting at the least.

Mark Kozelek may have spent the years since 2015 making himself increasingly difficult to love, but he’s equally difficult to hate outright - one minute he’ll be describing his petty arguments with retail workers with infuriating privileged self-righteousness, but the next he’ll be waxing poetic on the time he booked a flight home from a tour to see his dying cat one last time, or how much he misses his current cat when he’s travelling.

The overall picture is of a man whose sensitivity gives both himself and everyone around him a hard time while resulting in a whole bunch of great writing as a side-product - though writing that has decreased in quality as his self-obsession has skyrocketed.

Kozelek sings repeatedly of his sexual exploits in detail, his aloof interactions with fans, his tender memories of loved ones, and name-drops friends such as Ariel Pink, Elliott Smith, José Gonzalez and Stephen Malkmus. You come away from the gig, more than any other performance I’ve experienced, feeling that you know the performer and his life as well as anyone in the world. But the lingering question is, is this someone you actually want to know?

Written By: Ruben Mita