Concert Review: Mark Kozelek, October 3, The Great Hall, Toronto

Mark Kozelek

KRAMER: How can I possibly thank you?
SOUP NAZI: You are the only one who understands me.
KRAMER: You suffer for your soup.
SOUP NAZI: Yes. That is right.
KRAMER: You demand perfection from yourself, from your soup.
SOUP NAZI: How can I tolerate any less from my customer?
CUSTOMER: Uh, gazpacho, por favor.
SOUP NAZI: Por favor?
CUSTOMER: Um, I’m part Spanish.
SOUP NAZI: Adios muchacho!

To truly appreciate the experience of a Mark Kozelek concert, we must apply Seinology instead of logic. While  Kozelek certainly isn’t a Nazi with a hatred for any delineation from the soup-ordering process, one might wonder if he might spontaneously combust from annoyance. There are certain things he will not tolerate, to which I am providing a list of don’ts should you ever consider seeing him on tour in the future:

  • Don’t use your cell phone–if you think he won’t notice your quick text message or tweet, you’re sadly mistaken. Your glowing screen will give you away instantly, and some brown-nosing fellow attendees may well rat you out.
  • Don’t take photos–for this rule there aren’t any exceptions, unless he’s given you a photo pass. Interestingly enough, when someone near the stage started snapping pictures he said there were “no photos” but remembering he had issued one (a single) photo pass, he asked “Who did I give the photo pass to?” The gentleman with the camera responded “Me!” and Mr. Kozelek went onto express his wonderment that anyone would want to cover a concert for free. “You’re not even getting paid…stand around for 4 hours? I don’t leave my house unless I get paid”
  • Don’t yell out requests or attempt to have clever discourse–as the poor naive dope last year learned (the berating he suffered is included as the last song in his tour video), Koz doesn’t want to discuss his film cameos, and he certainly doesn’t want to know what you’d like to hear unless you’re a cute girl.
  • Don’t talk excessively or loudly–you will be roasted on an open Kozelek-stoked fire.

While none of these rules are excessive or unreasonable, it’s rare to see a performer call their so-called fans out on disobedience of basic concert-going civilities.  It’s no wonder Mark Kozelek has never played the Horseshoe Tavern; the sheer rabble of the front bar doing business as usual would be enough to turn him into a regular Timothy McVeigh.

That said, it’s impossible to not accept the guy’s abrasiveness given his consistent performance over the past 20 years both in terms of regular, high caliber releases (through Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon / his solo career) and through his exhaustive touring schedule. Early on throughout his set, he observed that we were a well-behaved audience (certainly compared to last year’s debacle at Lee’s Palace) and that this was the way it should be. “You respect me; I respect you”. A stoic, “patience young grasshopper” moment.

The set started promptly around 9:45 at the Great Hall, a charming venue in Parkdale (near the cluster of great Pho shops lining the Ossington strip). It was hot as all hell inside, but the persistent humming of an air conditioner (which didn’t seem to be doing anything anyway) led to Kozelek instructing his sound guy to shut it off about 1/3 through the show. I arrived to find groups of (predominantly) couples and goofy 20-something guys sitting on the floor and a stampede quickly took place towards the stage once the show started.

What unfolded was what I would expect only Mark Kozelek can deliver. A 2-hour journey through unexpected discourse, tasteless jokes, constant tinkering with lighting, and the absolute bearing of one’s soul onstage through song. We were lucky to catch him a good mood. He seemed elated that a boxing magazine had come to interview them, and his graciousness with respect to his musical career’s endurance was something I never thought I’d hear.

There were several moments that were particularly memorable, but not surprising given some of the topic coverage in Among The Leaves (his latest release–see: Sunshine in Chicago). First, he spotted an attractive girl close to the right hand stage and called out the guy who was right in front of him, dead centre. “Look at this guy in the baseball cap and beer. You might notice my listener-base has changed over the years to guys with beards and baseball caps. Who knows how much better I might be playing if she was standing there instead of him?” Then, deep into the set while he was thanking his sound guy and others on the tour he got to a woman named Sarah. “Thank you Sarah for fucking me later”…catching himself in the moment and the aghast laughs from the crowd he quickly said “I’m sorry Sarah…Sarah’s like, 55. I’m sorry. It’s just that when you go on Tour and hear a woman’s voice, you get excited”.

As a brusque person myself, I can accept the cliches that Kozelek rattles out. The rigid intolerance of concert attendees is understandable given his devotion to his art. The desire to be an ageless rock star bedding attractive young women night after night registers on the mildly lecherous scale, but who among us can say we wouldn’t claim the same? Well, maybe not quite as vocally. Maybe not even in the same percentile range. But no matter–most of the above is par for the terrain. The sheer grind of constant solo traveling with the same small group of people, highway hotels, restaurant meals, and domestic beer would be enough to permanently alter anyone’s personality. I’ve stated this before, but I maintain that touring is a viciously unnatural microcosm and I can’t even begin to imagine how rapidly it can wear you down.

Kozelek regularly whisks through Europe and North America at an alarming pace for a 45-year old (though I noted he stated he was 40 when musing about his 20-year career and how lucky he was to be successful). So how he manages to maintain an artistic rebirth on the nylon-stringed guitar is beyond me. Admiral Fell Promises was one of the best albums of 2010 and Among the Leaves is one of the best of 2012, tackling his acerbic humor and proving that he is more than just a deep misanthrope. Most artists at his stage would’ve chosen to release a 20-year retrospective. Instead, he has chosen to write completely new material tackling the process of songwriting and taking an analytic glance at his life. The new album tours well for this reason–it’s an amalgamation of everything to date.

Setlist (my highlight moments are in bold)

  1. Get Along Home Cindy
  2. Glenn Tipton
  3. That Bird Has a Broken Wing
  4. The Winery
  5. Elaine
  6. Track Number 8
  7. Missed My Heart
  8. Unknown (mentioning Vancouver, Halifax, Japan)
  9. The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man
  10. UK Blues – in which he describes how much he “fuckin’ hates that (Air Canada) airline”
  11. Sunshine in Chicago
  12. Unknown (mentioning his sister’s divorce, home across a cornfield in Ohio, and kids) – on anyone else, I’d describe this as a cloyingly sappy mess. As a Kozelek song, it’s magnificent.
  13. Heron Blue
  14. Mistress
  15. Half Moon Bay


  1. Among the Leaves
  2. I Know it’s Pathetic But that Was The Greatest Night of My Life
  3. Have You Forgotten – surprising to hear anything off Song for a Blue Guitar
  4. Celebrated Summer – There’s something about Husker Du songs that make for magnificent cover versions.
  5. Duk Koo Kim – dedicated to the aforementioned Sarah, and the best song of the night for me. He explained that tuning the guitar for this song would be near impossible, but it was pulled off in epic proportions.

Encore 2:

  1. Blue Orchids

I’ll end with one last thought. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other performer who gives more than Kozelek does both onstage and through his songwriting. During his reminiscence of his 20-year career, he noted that “All of my musician friends from when I first started are English Teachers now. They’re all married with kids now. Maybe that’s why they look like they’re 60”. A perennial bachelor and serial monogamist (I’m not sure if he’s still with his girlfriend, but I would assume so), Kozelek is on a journey that involves as much exhaustion in artistic birth. The type of stuff he’s penning and performing now is  coming from the same fountain of stuff that put him on the map in the first place. It’s sap-your-strength vulnerable, depressingly honest, and disgustingly overfamiliar themes that apply to the broad strokes of the human condition (kind of like a Woody Allen movie). Love, loss, all that stuff.

Now go see him live. You might hate him, you might love him, but you’ll remember it.

4 out of 5

Posted on by Allison in Concerts

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