Sun Kil Moon review – a truly extraordinary gig

St John at Hackney, London
Notoriously grumpy indie-folk artist Mark Kozelek rewarded his adoring fans with a magnificent show

Normally, Sun Kil Moon gigs are intimate, hushed affairs. Mark Kozelek – the sole trader under the name, filched from a Korean boxer – will most often play his Spanish guitar dextrously and, perhaps, get crabby with his audience. Many have adored the gruff singer-songwriter for more than 20 years since he led a San Francisco band called Red House Painters. He’ll be bleakly funny between songs, but berate hecklers.

Tonight, although he refuses photographers access, this notorious curmudgeon is in a fantastic mood, possibly a little stunned that 1,400 people have packed this atmospheric church, lit by candles and UV, to hear him play. He’s brought along a tremendous three-piece band who flesh out his songs with unexpectedly diverse arrangements. Of late, Kozelek has favoured low-key, matter-of-fact renditions of his songs. Tonight he’s packed a baritone bellow, and even his frail songs are transformed into brooding rock. Kozelek demonstrates his range on the previously tender Micheline, about a put-upon childhood friend.

Normally audience participation at SKM gigs is not a good idea. On this occasion, Kozelek actually pulls a girl out of the crowd to sing Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe – a song that lifts him up, he says wryly; none of his own songs do. (He spoils things somewhat with his mention of “getting a boner”).

With the aid of a lectern for lyrics, Kozelek performs his newest song – the tricksy Possum, about dead animals and the metal band Godflesh – and plays nothing older than a rearranged Black Kite from 2012’s Among the Leaves.

It’s a contrary thing, but Kozelek does have a sense of humour, best illustrated by his recent Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols album. He’s in seasonal mood tonight, choosing two Christmas songs that don’t actually appear on the album. Little Drummer Boy is an arresting metal dirge, with Kozelek thumping his microphone, and Christmas Song, by contrast, actually cockle-warming. So overwhelmed is Kozelek by all the good feelings – his and ours – that he even gives away his treasured microphone at the end. Before throwing it into the crowd, he carefully wraps it in a towel and gaffer tape, to avoid injuring anyone.

This is a truly extraordinary Sun Kil Moon gig, crowning an equally extraordinary 12 months for Kozelek. The excellent Benji, Kozelek’s sixth album as Sun Kil Moon, and roughly 12th overall, released in February, justly garnered the 47-year-old the greatest acclaim of his career. Getting through it without crying is hard.

Kozelek has often told autobiographical stories packed with suppressed emotion. But Benji (named after the 70s kids film about a dog) raised Kozelek’s own high bar. Heart-rending tales of first fumbles and family tragedy back in Ohio poured out of the boxing-obsessed misanthrope with gruff compassion, and Benji coalesced into a slow-burn phenomenon; something like what happened to Bill Callahan with Dream River last year.

Tonight, the last song Kozelek plays is Carissa, the opening track, in which Kozelek’s half-forgotten second cousin burns to death after an aerosol is mistakenly put in the trash (people in the midwest often burn their rubbish). It’s a study of irregular life arcs and the unexpected pull of blood ties, and tonight, the three-piece band add both tenderness and gravitas. They play Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes, which boggles at karma’s failure to punish the truly evil (Ramirez was a serial killer). The jazz intro is utterly magnificent; nothing like the album version.

No sooner had Benji started snowballing, however, than Kozelek went to war. Over the years, Kozelek has fostered this image as a prickly sort; being built like a stevedore and wearing a donkey jacket only adds to his presence. On last year’s Livingstone Bramble (also named after a boxer), Kozelek took petty pot shots at fellow Americana guitarists like Wilco’s Nels Cline. He recently called one North Carolina crowd “fucking hillbillies”.

In September, Sun Kil Moon’s set at a festival was drowned out by the War on Drugs, another band who have done very well out of 2014. Kozelek’s umbrage went nuclear; it has since settled into something of a hobby. He wrote a song called War on Drugs, Suck My Cock (it’s the first song of the encore tonight). War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel responded with bewilderment. Kozelek went on the attack again. Granduciel has maintained the high ground.

Tonight, only a few minutes go by before Kozelek starts repeatedly berating the War on Drugs (“I got two words for those guys: Soul Asylum”); the nastiness, though, is delivered tongue-in-cheek. In recent months the spat has threatened to overshadow the fabulousness of Benji; tonight it cannot.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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