This month, Bruce Springsteen opened his one-man show on Broadway and instructed his audience not to clap along. On his latest album, Jay-Z is rapping about credit and fiscal responsibility. And on Friday (10/13/17), Sun Kil Moon performed in Portland with as many classical musicians as rock musicians. They walked out without an opener and played for two and a half hours. Are our middle-aged musicians turning toward professionalism as reckless celebrity infects the white house? I don’t know, maybe.
The band and orchestra made a half moon behind Mark Kozelek, the one-man engine behind Sun Kil Moon. They left him most of the stage to gesticulate and pace like an anxious lounge singer, a coffee-house Frank Sinatra. The stage was lit in dark-blue, so the brightest light on him was a reading light, clipped to the music stand of the violin player. It cast his shadow 20 feet high on the wall of the theatre.
As he introduced his musicians, it became clear the players were called together to play with Mark and Minna Choi/Magik*Magik Orchestra for this evening like a rag-tag team of local super-heroes. Choi, who played keys and conducted the strings, existed most comfortably between the classical and rock worlds. She slammed chords and rocked out a little when the music worked up to it, then cued the strings with pure grace. Seeing the cello player seated beside a power-stanced, Weezer-looking guy with a P-Bass was pretty cool for some reason. All together they made a comfortable collaboration, a gentle and precise backdrop.
Kozelek was Marc Maron meets Lou Reed, talk-singing his long-lined songs. Call it flaccid rap or 1960s freak poetry, the tuneful days of Kozelek’s Red House Painters era are long gone. He has landed fully in the avant-garde, and thankfully his lyric writing has improved enough to make his breathless, stream-of-consciousness storytelling work.
The literal opposite of a hype man, Kozelek sunk the energy to 0 more than once between songs. It was weird, but it seemed a conscious choice. After all, the music don’t gain anything from having its listeners at the edge of our seats. At one point, he asked his middle-aged, indie-rock, Portland audience if Elliott Smith had spent any time here. There was no applause. He received a near-uniform “Yes.” in response.
That’s not to say he wasn’t funny. He checked back in throughout the show with the six-year-old in the front row to introduce “Needles Disney,” “his most family-friendly song about Disneyworld” [from the perspective of junkies]. He broke dead-pan only once, to halt Choi in her count-off —“NOTTHATFAST!”—it was somehow the funniest and most intimate moment of the evening.
Despite all the confessionalism and grit in the lyrics, the full performance came off at times as emotionally unavailable. The music was pure punk sophistication, high-minded. On balance, it was an enjoyable show, but one that left a somber after-taste, not just because the set ended with a tribute to the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting. I would hate to hear this music imitated, but the ‘Koz [does anyone call him that?], Choi, and company pulled it off.