If you’ve followed the career of Mark Kozelek and his gloomy folk project Sun Kil Moon, you are most likely aware of his mercurial moods and unpredictable performances. His onstage banter is the stuff of legend, and not always in a good way. So, naturally, many fans were curious how Kozelek would compose himself when he took the stage at Portland’s Aladdin Theater for what was billed as a “special 2.5 hour performance of Sun Kil Moon with an 8-piece string orchestra.” One couldn’t help but wonder how things would unfold over so much time and with so much musical pressure on Kozelek, and the fact that it was Friday the 13th in October made things even more intriguing.
As people entered the venue they were warned that even taking a cell phone out of their pocket to check the time could result in expulsion, and photos were definitely out of the question. From the moment the musicians took the stage, it was clear that photos wouldn’t even be possible and that we would not be seeing much of Kozelek, who wore a black suit and opted for zero stage lighting. With so much instrumental talent behind him, Kozelek opted to be a crooner over a guitar-wielding troubadour, kicking off with the sweeping, epic song “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails”. Each song of the set would run around ten minutes, with Kozelek delivering verse after verse like a beautifully drunken bard. Songs like “God Bless Ohio,” “Astronomy” and “Micheline” sounded like fluid poems laced with the troubled characters. The string section and piano player added a delicate, textured sound to each song that offered a contrast to Kozelek’s mournful vocals, many of which were yelled. Even though his face was barely visible, the singer carried himself with a sort of angsty bravado, seeming nervous to be leading such a talented group of musicians while also comparing himself to Bono and claiming to have inspired Sleep to record their stoner metal masterpiece Dopesmoker. Mostly though, Kozelek sounded delighted to share his dark lyrical tales that are often as emotionally heavy as they are mundane. Songs like “The Possum,” “Dogs” and “Windows Sash Weights” especially benefited from the lush orchestration and powerful drumbeat, and the Portland crowd shared a tender moment with Kozelek when he dedicated “The Black Butterfly” to the late Elliott Smith.
At some point during the performance, Kozelek thanked the crowd for being so nice and not making him angry. Indeed, much of his between song banter was warm and funny. The performance itself felt like a concert mixed with performance art or spoken word. Mostly though, it offered a different perspective on one of music’s oddest characters. While it may have lacked the intimacy of an acoustic set, it presented Mark Kozelek as more dynamic of a performer than one might think and perhaps not the curmudgeon people sometimes know him as.