Coming off conflicts elsewhere, Mark Kozelek awed the audience at Port City Music Hall on Thursday.
Mark Kozelek, frontman for indie-rock outfit Sun Kil Moon, arrived in Portland on a wave of buzz. At a recent concert in Raleigh, North Carolina, he had some choice words (not all of which are printable) for fans that talked during his performance. Soon after, he repeatedly insulted a band whose sound bled into his set at the Ottawa Folk Festival. This was not exactly bad buzz – it was mostly just Internet rubbernecking – but it was juicy enough to make local concertgoers wonder what he might do next.
This anticipation was enhanced by the fact that he was playing Port City Music Hall, a gem of a venue with terrific sound, great sightlines and arguably the best bookings in the state, but also a place that you typically go to enjoy a few drinks with your friends in addition to seeing a band. Quieter acts can struggle to compete with the din from the sizable bar, and Kozelek’s music is often built around his softly picking the nylon strings of an acoustic guitar.
It turned however, that there would be no rubbernecking on this evening. The audience, perhaps owing to the fact that Kozelek has never played Portland in a 25-year career, was respectful and reverent; talking was restrained to whispers, and there was nary a smartphone photo attempt in sight. The mood was light, with Kozelek enjoying an often-funny rapport with the audience. And as it turns out, he’s not that quiet. The acoustic guitar is there, but he dwarfs it with his boxer-like frame and bellows into a microphone run through so much reverb that his words hang in the air.
Those words are impeccably chosen. The fans who waited for decades to see Kozelek play in Portland didn’t hear many favorites from his early days in Sun Kil Moon or his 1990s band Red House Painters. Kozelek stuck to songs written since 2012 (two albums as Sun Kil Moon and one with Jimmy LaValle), and there’s little reason to complain – he’s been doing some of the best work of his career lately, culminating in “Benji,” this year’s song cycle about family, memory, aging, and death.
Accompanied by two drummers (one, Steve Shelley, is late of Sonic Youth), a keyboardist, and a guitarist, Kozelek’s arrangements were in fine form. The band gave his songs texture that his voice could hover above, and the results were frequently revelatory, opening new insights on songs like “He Always Felt Like Dancing,” a subtly percussion-driven number he originally wrote with LaValle, and “Benji’s” rich opening track, “Carissa.”
The performance revealed how much this reflective, nostalgic batch of recent songs sound like old Super 8 home movies – they exude warmth, they’re inseparable from the context of hindsight, time seems to slow down in them, and the vivid descriptions cause the colors to saturate. The compositions are often quite moving, but you have to be attentive to absorb all of the details.
WHO: Sun Kil Moon
REVIEWED: Sept. 18
WHERE: Port City Music Hall, Portland