Mark Kozelek can take you from Modest Mouse to Leonard Bernstein in the span of a few songs. He can also trace the entire arc of a love affair in four minutes, the details so vivid (the color of the walls, what you can see out the windows, the ocean that churns while you sleep) that you feel like you’ve experienced them yourself.
So it was par excellance last night (Nov. 12) during a solo acoustic show at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, as Kozelek shifted seamlessly from left-field covers (AC/DC’s “Riff Raff,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock”) to gems from throughout his Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon and solo catalogs.
If the mood lighting and seated audience, a rarity for the venue, set a tone of somber reflection, Kozelek made sure to deflate it with good-natured comments about the makeup of the front row (“Is this the lonely mens’ club? Don’t you have wives?”) and how he was sick of lugging his guitars and merch on the Amtrak to gigs.
That may have helped everybody loosen up, but it was impossible not to get lost in thought during Kozelek’s refreshingly un-ironic narratives of growing up in Ohio (“Glenn Tipton”), revisiting ghosts from the past (“Trailways”) and freeze-framing the moments that stay with you forever (“Moorestown”).
Covers have always been a part of Kozelek’s modus operandi. With Red House Painters, they sometimes seemed straight-laced to the point of confusion (“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Kiss’ “Shock Me”), but in his solo and Sun Kil Moon guises, Kozelek has become much more adept at putting his own stamp on the material. This was best evidenced by his show-opening take on Palace Music’s “New Partner”; the original is a shambling country ballad, but in Kozelek’s hands it became an even more sincere ode to the little things that make us love someone.
Kozelek’s guitar talents were on full display as well. Mainly playing a nylon six-string and finger-picking through what on record are often three-guitar jams, he shined on songs like “Blue Orchids,” which sported a dexterous instrumental interlude, and the epic “Duk Koo Kim,” which was more effective than the strummier version heard on its original vinyl incarnation.
It was a treat to hear some old Red House Painters songs, two of which cropped up in the encore. “Helicopter” was full of the razor-sharp imagery that marked the band’s earliest work (“burning flesh,” “desolate pain”), while “Katy Song” crystallized the pain involved in letting go of a relationship. Kozelek wrote that song in the early ’90s, but lines like “I know tomorrow you will be / somewhere in London, living with someone” still sting as if the hurt behind them was freshly inflicted.
Here is Mark Kozelek’s set list:
“Send in the Clowns”
“I Am a Rock”
“Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”
“Duk Koo Kim”