Monday, March 3, 2014

No better way to experience Mark Kozelek than in SF

No better way to experience Mark Kozelek than in SF
Mark E. Ortega
March 3, 2014

Saturday night, I ventured out to Great American Music Hall in San Francisco to see Mark Kozelek play a show ten blocks from where the former Red House Painters singer lives, according to some of his between song banter that evening.

I had interviewed Kozelek back in 2011 for, not so much about music, but about boxing. Kozelek’s spin off from Red House Painters is named Sun Kil Moon, named for the South Korean boxer. On Sun Kil Moon’s first album Ghosts of a Great Highway exists a song “Salvador Sanchez”, named for the legendary Mexican fighter who died tragically at 23 years of age. 

Since that interview, we’ve traded several e-mails about the fights. When I saw Kozelek was playing in the Bay Area a day after a boxing match took place in Redwood City, it made it easy to justify a trip from Las Vegas back to my former NorCal stomping grounds.

Here’s a timeline of what was a very enjoyable evening in the city.

7:30: Arrive at GAMH. It’ll be an hour before Kozelek, pianist Chris Connolly, and drummer Eric Pollard take the stage.

7:34: I went backstage and met Mark and his band mates and ended up talking about some of the upcoming fights. Kozelek is picking Canelo Alvarez to beat Alfredo Angulo next Saturday, if you were wondering. He also quickly looked through some classic fights on DVD I had brought with me, remarking that he had a couple of those fights on VHS”.

Kozelek had a part in the classic Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous as the bassist for Stillwater, the band that Patrick Fugit follows around and becomes pals with while on the road. In a way, it was my own brief Almost Famous moment, as I’ve begun to write about music in the recent months and Kozelek is the first musician I’ve come to know on a somewhat regular person level.

Speaking of Almost Famous, one of the fights I had brought was Lennox Lewis crushing Andrew Golota in one round. I mentioned that the Arturo Gatti-Gabriel Ruelas fight was on that disc. As it turned out, Rafael Ruelas came by the set for the film, as many of the scenes were shot at the Olympic Auditorium, across the parking lot from the gym that Rafael and his brother Gabriel trained at. Mark met both of the brothers at a boxing convention in LA the same year.

Kozelek (far right) with Gabriel and Rafael Ruelas.
Photo courtesy of Mark Kozelek

Kozelek’s funniest line in the film was filmed at that location, he said. “I’m just hungry man,” he quips back in the film at his ficticous band mate. “Let’s just go out and find some barbeque or something.”

After a few more minutes of enjoyable bullshitting I headed back up to the main area and anxiously awaited the beginning of the show.

7:50: I grab my first beer, a Lagunitas IPA, at the bar. Props to GAMH bartender Roc, a pretty funny guy. I told him he had it good, being able to hear all this live music for free.

“Yeah, except when it is something that you don’t like,” Roc responded.

“Still, if you don’t like what you’re hearing, you only have to hear it that one time, usually,” I said. “At other bars, you have to hear the same Miley Cyrus or Beyonce song 400 times, sometimes 20 times just in a day.”

He admitted I had a point.

7:55: All too ironically, Ben Gibbard’s “Teardrop Windows” plays over the GAMH PA system. Gibbard is the frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, one of the few indie rock bands from the late 90s that made it as a mainstream success later on.

Kozelek has a song on his new album Benji called “Ben’s My Friend”. The song is about a number of things, one being attending a Postal Service concert and feeling really out of place and slightly competitive with his good friend Gibbard, who the Postal Service was a side project for. [Gibbard interviewed Kozelek for A.V. Club in 2008].

7:58: After just one Lagunitas and one Bud Light, I already start to feel a little tipsy. Then I remembered that I hadn’t really eaten shit that day. I decide to order the $6 basket of fries.

8:01: I hear a couple talking about the concert. The guy is obviously a big fan and the girl says she knew she had heard the name before and then did some research by downloading a couple of the albums and put two and two together.

The downloading of the albums remark got the guy to respond negatively, saying he likes to support the artists by actually paying for their music. It was fun to see the guy try and tiptoe the line of being really offended but not enough to fuck up his chances to get laid later on in the evening.

The girl said she put two and two together who he was after she did a little Google research. That comment made me laugh to myself because in one of our e-mail exchanges, Kozelek told me he doesn’t use Google at all, so I wonder what he would think of using it as a tool to familiarize themselves with his work.

8:11: I noticed there was a sign that read NO VIDEO NO AUDIO NO PHOTOS NO CELL PHONES. It’s nice to attend a show every once in a while where you don’t have to worry about having to watch the show through somebody’s held up iPad, or them taking selfies in between songs. Sometimes, people get lost in the need to document and record every bit that happens to them, and I’m one who can be guilty of this as much as anyone.

8:14: Ben Gibbard’s “Lady Adelaide” plays over the PA system. This is now the second song from Gibbard’s Former Lives solo album that has played.

I see a banner hanging from the upper level above the stage, indicating that this show was part of the long-running Noise Pop Music Festival. I had no idea.

Photo from Instagram user @saintrik.

8:21: The Gibbard song “Bigger Than Love” from Former Lives plays over the PA. Singer/songwriter Aimee Mann features on the track. Earlier that day, I watched the show Portlandia for the first time at a friend’s house on Netflix. Mann ironically features into a bit where the music business is so messed up that she has to work as a maid. Sarah McLachlan makes an appearance in that segment as well.

8:26: Another Gibbard song from the Former Lives album plays.

???: The only times you realize it sucks not having a watch is when you’re told to turn off your cell phones. Kozelek takes the stage and my phone turns off. I try and take notes as best as I can using a pen and scrap of paper the rest of the way. Here’s where my actual review of the show begins.


I imagine there is no better place to see Kozelek touring in support of his recently released Sun Kil Moon album Benji than in San Francisco. Kozelek makes infinite references to the area, street names and establishments, as well as the northern California area (I think you hear San Rafael and Sasalito mentioned in songs he played on this night), so it was a real joy to experience the show in that area.

Kozelek and his band mates take the stage and play Benji title track “Carissa”. The content of Benji, which I reviewed over at a few weeks ago, is moving and stirring stuff. Kozelek began with the first four tracks from the album.

In between “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” (about dreading the day his mom will pass) and “Truck Driver” (about the tragic way in which an uncle of his passed), Kozelek broke up the tension very well with his banter.

I’m paraphrasing what he said, but Kozelek basically said he could care less about Noise Pop but was very happy he could go ten blocks from his home and make an easy ten grand playing the show, which had people laughing.

The song “I Love My Dad” had people who were listening close to the lyrics chuckling a bit. The everyday stuff that finds its way into Kozelek’s songs about deep and sometimes dark things also helps provide some levity.

It was after this song that Kozelek made pretty funny comments about the people who had showed up to see him. He mentioned how in the front row, all he saw was a bunch of dudes.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve guys, all in a row,” Kozelek said. “And these guys probably came from far away, distant places to get this fucking close to me. I appreciate it, I’m just making a point.”

I had read in a recent review of a Kozelek show that he is sometimes beleaguered by who the typical Mark Kozelek fan turns out to be. As I looked around, I could venture a solid estimation that two-thirds of the males (which represented probably 90% of the audience) had at least one of the following: flannel shirt, thick rimmed glasses, or a receding hairline.

I’m not sure if it was during this part of his banter, but at some point Kozelek noticed some guy in the crowd who was wearing headphones.

I’m paraphrasing, but Kozelek said something along the lines of the guy with the headphones was fucking him up and to please take them off, that he looked fucking stupid. It was said in a joking type way and was another funny light moment to provide a balance to the depth of what was taking place lyrically.

Kozelek made a reference to the show that took place the evening before at GAMH, headlined by Bob Mould. Kozelek must have been in attendance because he mentioned how it looked like an old folks home at his show and he was glad to have a lively crowd in front of him that night.

Kozelek plays a couple more from Benji, and prior to one, says “This is an uplifting song about a special needs girl I knew when I was a kid who ended up getting taken advantage of. Later, I’ll play another uplifting song about serial killer Richard Ramirez, who died last year.” To the Richard Ramirez remark, some reacted as though he was kidding. Then Kozelek did play “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”, a song he said was inspired by a text message he received from his girlfriend. They now knew he was not kidding.

That Kozelek explains briefly in between where some of the songs came from and what kind of headspace he was in while writing it is the kind of bonus nugget of info you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. 

“This is a song about a Mexican contractor who fucked up my house,” said Kozelek before playing “Gustavo”, one of the highlights of the night.

Kozelek’s intricate finger picking Spanish guitar that has typified his work for much of the last decade has seen him compared to other musicians like Jose Gonzalez and Bon Iver in recent years, though those guys were still getting shoved around on the playground by other kids when Kozelek achieved his first big success in the 1990s. Kozelek zeroed in on one guy in particular during the show that he kept calling Jose Gonzalez, which I got a kick out of.

It was a joy to see Kozelek rely on his killer guitar skills and unstated vocal prowess throughout his set.
Some of the highest high points in my opinion were “You Missed My Heart” and “Caroline” (both of which can be found on Perils from the Sea, a 2013 collaboration with Jimmy Lavalle).

The boxing references were aplenty during the set. In “Caroline”, Kozelek references Manny Pacquiao having an easy night against Ricky Hatton. Songs “Livingstone Bramble” and “Tavoris Cloud” are named after pugilists and make passing references to fights and fighters. Kozelek is the only musician out there referencing unbeaten young welterweight Keith Thurman and ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins in his lyrics.

“Tavoris Cloud” was the first encore song and it was preceded by Kozelek saying it had to do with a drummer friend of his, Tim Mooney, passing away. It was one of two songs Kozelek played alone on the stage, before being joined on stage for the final song.

I think Kozelek is a must see live show if you even remotely like his sound. Some of the songs he played off Perils From The Sea sounded even better live than on the studio album, in my opinion. It was just natural for Kozelek to pump up the chorus on “By the Time That I Awoke” a bit from how it sounds on the album. Every song is so personally crafted that experiencing it in its live form just brings an extra element to the table.

10:45 I grabbed a California burrito from around the corner before catching the BART train back to the East Bay. It was a memorable night in the city.

I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love
Truck Driver
I Watched the Film The Song Remains The Same
Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes
Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here
You Missed My Heart
Katowice or Cologne
Livingstone Bramble
The Bird Has a Broken Wing
The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman
By the Time That I Awoke
Ceiling Gazing

Tavoris Cloud
Black Kite
Among the Leaves


  1. German Painter and Decorator in London If you're looking for a professional painting and home renovation company with years of experience to prove it, then look no further, Home Painters Toronto is the contractor for you. We specialize in interior, exterior, residential, and commercial painting and our services don't stop there! We can also help you with drywall repair and installation, plaster, stucco ceiling repair and removal, carpentry, and much more!

  2. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!
    Pintores madrid baratos