Wednesday, March 25, 2015
10 years ago, Mark Kozelek’s brief insult directed at The War on Drugs at the Ottawa Folk Festival would’ve been a brief aside. Local press would devote a line in a review to Kozelek’s curmudgeonly grumbling and it would remain a funny aside for gig-goers, but little more. But this is 2015, and that offhand remark evolved into a one-sided beef that became a meme and a diss track and now, most unfortunately, a defining part of the way audiences perceive the 48-year-old songwriter.
So there was already a tension in the air when Kozelek walked on-stage with keyboardist Chris Connolly and drummer Eric Pollard at the sweltering and packed Bakery on Wednesday night just before 9PM. And it was hard to tell if that tension was cut or prolonged when, before playing a note, Kozelek asks someone offstage to “turn those fucking fans off.” When the keyboards were too loud on the opening song Mariette, he stopped and joked that the sound guy was on crack, before launching into a stripped-down, guitarless version of the song. When Kozelek cuts through the bullshit and allows his songs to do the talking for him, he’s a brilliant performer, even when he’s doing a stripped-down version of his catalogue.
In fact, Kozelek didn’t pick up his guitar until about 30 minutes into his set, performing sombre and stripped-back versions of Stephen Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns, an absurd and vulgar novelty song about Nando’s chicken, as well as Micheline, I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love and Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes from last year’s Benji, with only keyboard and percussion to back his voice. And while no performer is obliged to make the live show sound exactly like the record, the poignancy of those songs is lost in translation when the melody is carried only by chords on a keyboard, or when Kozelek inexplicably shouts lyrics that he wrote to be sung, as he does in the second half of Richard Ramirez. And of course he played War On Drugs: Suck My Cock, and maybe the shouting was appropriate there, if not a little embarrassing.
Kozelek is nothing if not charismatic, even if that charisma is steeped in self-deprecation and half-joking aggression. He’s one of the most interactive performers you’ll ever see, bringing up two women from the front of the stage to join him in a cover of Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe, whom, luckily, could sing, as well as another punter whom, unluckily, couldn’t keep a beat when tasked with banging on a drum. But there’s a point when crowd interaction goes from endearing to awkward and cringe-worthy, like when Kozelek asked a Maori security guard to keep a beat – thankfully, he could – but felt it necessary to guide him with a few words of encouragement: “Have you seen that movie Once Were Warriors? Pretend you’re that guy beating the shit out of his wife. I’m joking!”
And three hours is an incredibly long time to keep an audience entertained no matter how talented you are, especially when a quarter of that time is talking and not playing songs, which is why The Bakery went from about 400 to 200 punters by 11pm. Kozelek appeared more relaxed – or maybe drunk – as the set limped towards its conclusion, and there were some late highlights, like when he responded to a request for Salvador Sanchez and, after requiring some assistance from a punter up front to remember the lyrics, remarked to himself, “Sometimes I’m a really good songwriter.” Or when Bec, the 28-year-old woman who Kozelek brought on stage to bang on a drum for the last three songs, told him with enthusiasm “My Dad’s 50!” after Kozelek joked about how old he is. And those final songs – Jim Wise, Truck Driver and He Always Felt Like Dancing – were rendered beautifully, but it’s hard to appreciate a beautiful performance when you’ve been standing in a sauna for over three hours and quarter of that time was spent watching inane banter, especially when there’s more than six hours of material to draw from. A nearby punter put it best when he said “It’s entertaining and all, but I think I’d rather just hear some Sun Kil Moon songs.”