Mark Kozelek took the stage alone, carrying two acoustic Gibson guitars: a six string and a 12 string. The former centrepiece of influential indie act the Red House Painters wore a casual, white, button down shirt with a pair of blue jeans. His appearance on the boards caused people in the crowded barroom to become immediately quiet. Kozelek started to strum on the 12 string, playing bright chords in syncopated rhythms for a few short minutes and then began to sing the words “Going to New York City” over and over. Looking over the London audience he smiled as he began to lyrically cross the borders of the great expanse of America: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Montana, etc. He sang about his love for a woman who travelled as a way of avoiding commitment, escaping from her feelings and his affections.
The crowd burst into applause. Then there was quiet, so quiet one could hear a pin drop. I know; the Laura Cantrell pin I had in my pocket made a noisy sound dropping to the floor when I reached for my pen to take notes. Kozelek commented on the silence several times during the evening. “Hey, could you stop the racket,” he jokingly asked the crowd when tuning his guitar between songs. A slight twitter could be heard, but Kozelek’s comments rang true. Everytime a bathroom door creakily opened, or a person wearing heels walked across the floor, the sound loudly reverberated. “We’re being reverential,” one fellow responded. Kozelek acknowledged the tribute, but appeared confused by the audience’s silence.
But the audience knew what was best, as Kozelek’s beautifully sung, strikingly literate lyrics and artful acoustic guitar-playing deserve a quiet place to be heard. He sang a number of story-songs of love that pulled at one’s heartstrings without being maudlin or melodramatic. For instance, he told stories of his childhood friend Michael who suffers from mental illness and is now “the oldest juvenile delinquent bum” and a cheating lover who “tricks me into thinking / I can’t believe my eyes”.
Kozelek songs can be blunt (“Sorry that / I could never love you back / I could never care enough”) or use social commentary as a way of indirectly describing the psychological reality of his personas (“Cassius Clay was hated more than Sonny Liston / I like ‘em all”). Kozelek sang in a clear, strong voice, never straining even when hitting the high notes. He nimbly fingered his guitar strings, which provided decorative rhythms more than melodic accompaniment.
After about an hour, while Kozelek lit a cigarette and changed guitars, members of the audience began to shout requests. “The next person who says anything, I’m gonna punch in the fucking face,” he deadpanned. “I’m in a great mood. I’m glad that you all are familiar with my entire life’s work and want me to play them all. It’s this body of work that lets me play in this wonderful mall.” Despite its grand sounding name, Kozelek’s reference was correct- - the Carling Academy Islington is located in a small mall, complete with several clothing outlets, a Border’s bookstore, an Odeon movie theatre complex, and several inexpensive restaurants.
Kozelek took advantage of the English crowd by playing up to it at times, ad libbing on certain songs to bring out the British references. “The boy from Manchester / got knocked down in the first round,” he began then mugged, “he got the shit kicked out of him” before getting back to the original lyrics “even the doctor couldn’t help him”. The audience appreciatively responded whenever Kozelek would mention their home country. Actually, they responded enthusiastically to everything Kozelek did. He was clearly performing for an audience of fans.
The audience demanded, and received, two encores. The first featured two duets with a woman with a beautiful voice named Emily (Kozelek presumed the audience knew who she was and never introduced her other than to say, “Emily is going to join me on a couple of songs”). The second encore featured Kozelek taking crowd requests and singing a capella. “I’m tired of playing guitar,” he grumbled to the appreciative audience. He finished with “Mistress”, a lovely song from his Red House Painter days. Kozelek ended the song with the chorus of “Be my / Be my mistress” and then went into a wordless, gentle howl of yearning to conclude the night.