It must be a somewhat perplexing year to be a Mark Kozelek fan. With the relative success of this year’s extraordinary album Benji, the former Red House Painters frontman (going under the Sun Kil Moon moniker tonight) has gone from ‘criminally underrated’ status to a singer-songwriter who, at last, is getting his just rewards on a slightly wider scale. It’s a ‘told-you-so’ moment for those who have been there since he started out over two decades ago.
There’s a sense early on at the sold-out Button Factory that Kozelek is enjoying this newfound attention, too. He has brought a band with him on this tour: a keyboardist and a second guitarist, and for the first batch of songs Kozelek doesn’t even play guitar himself, instead beating a small drum-kit with one hand and singing while his band to the spadework. It’s an odd sight. In recent years he took the minimalist approach to touring, performing only with his Spanish guitar but the piano and extra guitarist give his songs added heft in a live setting. So opener ‘Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here’ is unsettlingly raucous. It’s followed by a rough and ready cover of The Misfits’ ‘Green Hell’ before calm is restored with the bittersweet ‘Micheline’ from this year’s Benji. The sharp contrasts in tone and style evident in just the first three songs will continue for the next two hours or so but it’s the unflinchingly raw accounts of pointless deaths (‘Carissa’) to fears of how to deal with the inevitable passing of a loved one (‘I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love’) that have the greatest impact. Another cut from Benji ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’ is quietly devastating as Kozelek sings of the regret he still feels after he punched a classmate in the schoolyard. Even the Christmas carols he covers become weighed down with added poignancy.
Midway through the set, Kozelek – seemingly now bored of playing the drums himself – asks if anyone can join him to take over. An 18-year-old called Jake dutifully obliges. And then something extraordinary happens: Kozelek pays the kid 500 euro for his services. Jake shakes his head in disbelief, as do the audience. In another touching moment, he hugs Jake’s father at the end of the show. So beneath the image of a supposedly moody, War On Drugs-hating misanthrope lies a kind-hearted softie. Who knew? As 2014 comes to a close, Kozelek has possibly pushed other contenders aside for gig of the year, stealing the crown at the last minute. God knows, he deserves it.