Black Box, Belfast
Saturday 13th of August 2011
When Mark Kozelek last played Belfast in 2007 his performance resulted in the exquisite live album, 7 Songs Belfast. Clearly, such an honour hasn't been lost on his devoted Northern Irish contingent: whether more partial to his music with Red House Painters in the 1990s, or his solo material as Sun Kil Moon, a crammed Black Box eagerly awaits Kozelek's return.
As expected, the stage set-up tonight is understated, a chair, nylon-string guitar and mic punctuating a pitch-black stage from which Kozelek eventually emerges. But while he receives a rapturous reception, sound problems and Kozelek's severe criticism of the sound guy swiftly mar the sentiment. Undoubtedly, the atmosphere is already an uncomfortable one and when 'Up To My Neck' is finally summoned it's tricky determining Kozelek's frame of mind.
'Australian Winter' quickly follows, an exquisitely delicate ode exposing its writer's inimitable knack for merging penetrating, aphoristic lyrics with classical, flamenco-style guitar playing. A somewhat deflated version of 'Carry Me Ohio' proves much less absorbing however before Kozelek's frustrations surface once more, this time reproaching the sound guy for forgetting the reverb crucial to the majesty and distance of his vocals.
While it's not unreasonable for Kozelek to get frustrated at issues such as these, the manner in which he goes about it is extremely disappointing. Indeed, it's around this point he abruptly challenges those "standing around like jocks" to come closer to the stage; easily persuaded, a mass swarms to the front to sit cross-legged like schoolchildren about to be read a ghost story. Sadly, however, while this request should really convey good will it merely indicates impatience on Kozelek's part.
Soon afterwards we're treated to two brand new songs: the first written in Chicago only two weeks ago, the second concerning the monotony of touring Europe ("Denmark, Denmark, where everybody's white and everybody rides bikes"). Clearly, these are light-hearted interludes in an otherwise heavy set - much more Tenacious D than Leonard Cohen - so when Kozelek earnestly tells his legitimately amused audience to "shut up" it only serves to emphasise the gulf between a stunning songwriting talent and an apparently indifferent personality.
Mercifully, though, Kozelek's music barely suffers as a result: Red House Painters' highlights include 'Summer Dress' and the deeply entrancing 'Mistress' while a wonderfully converted cover of AC/DC's 'What's Next To The Moon?' underlines his innate versatility. Better still, set highlight 'Half Moon Bay' proves especially poignant - a powerful narrative verging on musical voyeurism for those who bear witness.
While a half-arsed cover of 'Whiskey In The Jar' raises the mood slightly, closer 'Like The River' proves to be as transcendent a song that mere vocals and guitar only can conjure. Kozelek's thoroughly arresting talent is unquestionable: doused in melancholy and unhinged nostalgia, it's perhaps best surmised with Cobain's heart-rending refrain of "I miss comfort in feeling sad". Alas, like a black cloud that occasionally lets through blinding rays of light, his performance tonight will likely be remembered for all the wrong reasons.