SXSW 2016: What won’t Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek say on stage?

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Facing a long rain delay at Clive Bar, the patrons were flushed out of their spots in line and told to seek cover. It took an hour and a half to actually get things started again, with a badge line wrapping around the block.

And lest we are tempted to forget the powerful hold SXSW has, I met a handful of young men braving the rain after traveling from Glasgow, Scotland. They were here not as performers but as badge purchasing tourists. And they were here to see Mark Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon.

“I don’t need these monitors. Help me unplug this monitor.”

This was just one of a myriad of oddities that flowed from Mark Kozelek’s mouth during his one and only Austin set during SXSW 2016. The first few moments he took the stage were studies in frontman awkwardness. He had a new drummer (“We just met five minutes ago,” Kozelek said) from the band who’d finished before him. Then the keyboard wasn’t plugged in, so a weird flurry of housekeeping began. Then Kozelek mimed the drum part into the mic to teach his new drummer how to play each song.

Recipe for disaster? As it turns out: no, not really.

People tend to zoom in on one version of Kozelek’s movement and stay there. His macchiato vocals spun sensitive yarns in his Red House Painters period. I really loved his modest mouse covers. But then there’s his fascination with metal (he has a new record with Jesu, the British band that formed after Godflesh broke up), and his recent confessional record, “Benji.”

It’s highwire improvisation, an ornery persona with a heavy heavy dose of irony. In other words, Kozelek’s stage banter is another way for him to do something different. To him, I think, it’s comedy.

As Kozelek pointed out, most of his new songs are ten minutes long, so when you count the banter, this set was like four songs deep. And that included a hoarse-voiced Bowie cover: a depressive, boring version of “Win,” from “Young Americans.”

Much better luck with Kozelek’s new confessional work. With just a keyboard (and a single sustained drum riff) running under each song, it’s a platform for Kozelek’s long, rambling new music, which is almost spoken word, but not quite.

“Thank you from the souvenir from Austin. I always wanted one of these.” Kozelek said after he’d wrested a pro camera from a photographer in the front row. He then wore it around his neck. (Probably, for safety’s sake, a great idea.)

Then he launched into “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” almost a confessional rap that, like much of “Benji,” records the inane details of his life at the time when he heard this serial killer had died.

“Exodus,” Kozelek announced, was a song about the death of Mike Tyson’s daughter. It’s from on the Sun Kil Moon/Jesu record, and it also deals with singer Nick Cave’s son, also dead. A song for bereaved parents, he explained. Kozelek asked the crowd to sing along at the end, even if it felt corny, a sort of good vibe for bereaved parents everywhere. Even after he launched into an insult about a crowd full of hillbillies, people cautiously chimed in.

Kozelek is so acerbic during the breaks. He seemed to be falling into some spiral of endless irony, like a sad, but still compelling comedian.

The surprising thing is how effective it all was. No one there will forget that show for a long time, just based on its weirdness alone. Too many SXSW bands have a generic or formulaic stage presence. Kozelek’s salty, abrasive style pulls you in. Plus, his style and delivery has more than a passing resemblance to Christopher Walken’s. So there’s that.

As his songs delve into his earliest sexual encounters in fairly graphic detail, you may raise your eyebrows, but if we’re being truthful, there’s an honest voyeuristic appeal to it.

So you stay all through the tiny, oddball set, watching Kozelek hunched over to read off his lyrics sheet (understandable, given how long these songs are), more like a modern Robert Lowell poet than a rocker.

 


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