You will see a stock image of Mark Kozelek atop this review for a reason. I was close to the stage last night and his ban on photography (and cell phones) was such that I just knew he would wince, bristle and probably bark if a flash went off in the dimly lit Biltmore Cabaret.
Kozelek leads Sun Kil Moon, whose wondrous new album, Benji, was one of the reasons the club was teeming. But he is a curious, unnecessarily caustic performer, uncomfortable with crowd bustle, obsessed with shushing us for silence, and ready to be a tad nasty to the patrons about their age or their between-song chat.
His first words were to ask the crowd to be quiet. His second words were how happy he was not to be in Victoria because it was a city of grandmothers. He stopped a song when he heard a washroom toilet flush. He snapped at someone who asked how long he’d been on tour. He recalled his putdown to a British concertgoer earlier on his tour who got snarky about Kozelek’s incessant tuning of his admittedly sensitive nylon-stringed guitar. He couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a better 400-capacity club in the city. He made fun of someone’s resemblance to Billy Idol and the pack of middle-aged men (full disclosure: I was amid them) to one side of the stage. In short, he projected his own anxiety wonderfully and kept us detached and off-kilter.
Which is, in surprising ways, incongruent with the humane, intimate, absorbing writing on Benji and his prolific and often profound body of work with Sun Kil Moon and other collaborations. Kozelek is a wordy writer, and his lyrics spill all over the boundaries of his melodies on Benji, but they form the basis of a remarkable album and he played almost all of it (strange omission: the accessible Song for Newtown) in what proved to be a generous set list.
He uses reverb and the effect is a mixed bag. He has such a clear, penetrating voice and I wonder if the show would have benefited from a more direct (apart from his quips), less ethereal presentation. His two sidemen were a little ill-placed at times, too, drums a bit overwhelming and keyboards a little underwhelming, until later in the set when they settled in.
Benji’s motif is death. In almost every song, except for the odes to his parents and a neighbourhood friend, someone is biting the dust: a second cousin, an uncle, the wife of a family friend, the victims of a serial killer, the children of Newtown. But there hasn’t been a more beautiful batch of folk music in recent memory and the reviewers are properly praising its emotional depth. Unsettling and disturbing can also making for excellent art, and my sense of Kozelek is that he does this as a respectable labour of true love.
Mostly the band’s performance of these songs (particularly in setting the tone in the first three tracks, the same three that start the album) lifted them out of the spartan recorded territory into a different genre and gave them a new jolt of energy. If you were familiar with the new album, you could appreciate the new context provided by the performance. If you weren’t, the show was a solid entry point.
It is true the Biltmore is a challenging venue and there is no defence for how it presents music. Sight lines to a low-lying stage are such that, if you’re not within 30 feet of the stage, you might as well not be there. And to play quiet music when so many can’t really see you is asking much of a crowd, particularly when you’re playing for more than 90 minutes. But fussing over this as a performer, particularly when you need about 30 seconds to tune your guitar pretty well every song, kills the vibe more than not. The Biltmore is not the crowd’s fault and the span it takes to prepare for the next song cannot be expected to be quiet time.
Did I love the music? Absolutely. Could I have loved it more in a different setting? Absolutely. Could I have used less byplay? You know the answer.