Local Current Blog

Mark Kozelek and Low in Duluth: Entrancing and unrepentant

photo by Walt Dizzo

Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon performed in Duluth last night. It was his second of two nights performing in the port town (the night prior he played an unannounced set at Fitger’s Brewhouse along with Alan Sparhawk—these things just seem to happen in Duluth). Given the controversy Kozelek has courted in recent weeks with his crusade against the War On Drugs, I chatted with attendees anticipating the show to determine if folks showed up more for the music or the potential spectacle. The majority of folks I asked were definitely there for the music and were ready to move on from the controversy (even if, based on his stage banter, Kozelek himself isn’t quite done yet).

A former house of worship repurposed as a museum committed to the preservation of original handwritten letters and documents may not seem the most likely place to host a concert, but after Thursday night’s double feature of Low and Sun Kil Moon you’d be hard-pressed to think of a place more fitting.

The 20-year-old Karpeles Manuscript Library is undergoing a reboot of sorts: although its primary function will remain as a museum, management is actively letting the public know that the space is well-suited for a variety of community events. The layout features pews set up on a lower level closest to the room’s small stage with plenty of standing room a few steps higher, as well as a gorgeous seated balcony overlooking it all. The natural amplification provided by the building’s architecture increases the volume of anything happening inside the space, which demands the audience keep quiet as to not detract from what is happening on the stage. It’s perfect for acts like Low and Kozelek that are used to enraptured audiences hanging on every line. I can foresee many more acts taking advantage of this Duluth gem.

Low took the stage, dressed in formalwear, for a rare opening slot in front of their hometown audience; it was really nice to see Kozelek emerge from the dressing room to take a spot in the audience to watch the entire Low performance. The trio set the tone with a newer track (previously played live but not yet recorded)—with lyrics that reference some familiar Low themes including hands being tied and a house on fire. The audience, like at every Low show I’ve seen, was reverent and highly attentive doling out appreciative applause between songs and letting out excited acknowledgement when favorites (“Tonight the Monkey Dies,” “Holy Ghost”) were introduced. Low ended their gorgeous hour-long set with a couple of more new tracks (these were songs recently performed during the band’s sets opening for Slowdive, but haven’t seen official release yet).

After a brief intermission, Kozelek took the stage to a large ovation, greeting the audience with warmth and kind words about Duluth. He also acknowledged his 20-year friendship with Alan Sparhawk and recalled how they met (Low were opening for Soul Coughing in the early 90s; let’s say the audience weren’t so appreciative of Low, and Sparhawk let them know the feeling was mutual). Kozelek then, without introduction, proceeded to perform an a cappella version of “Micheline” that left the audience floored. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do after that.

After singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and letting the audience know that it’s “never too soon for Christmas music” (his new album of Christmas songs was for sale at the door), Kozelek took a seat and performed “I Know It’s Pathetic, But That Was The Greatest Night Of My Life” from 2012’s Among the Leaves. As the show continued, Kozelek introduced many of his songs by way of telling stories of what they are about; most of Kozelek’s lyrics are basically stories, so his explanation of “Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here,” for example, from his recent record with Desertshore, was basically the exact story he tells in the song. Still, no matter how many times I hear it, I’m going to enjoy hearing about him meeting Anton LaVey.

Yes, between songs Kozelek did acknowledge his haters. He mocked those who have complained that they like the old Kozelek better. He still hates the War On Drugs. He compared his career to that of his friend Sparhawk’s noting, “He got his songs covered by Robert Plant, and I’ve sold songs to Walmart.” He doesn’t care for Pitchfork (“Modern journalism is bringing me down”), and doesn’t have time for people who write essays about song titles (“If you write an essay because of a song title, you are a loser”). He also mentioned how much he appreciated the Duluth audience and noted that we should “be grateful you live here.” Kozelek’s banter was pretty much what everyone I talked to expected, but nothing anyone who attended felt the need to walk away from. I got the feeling that the audience felt that they were in on the joke. As Kozelek himself declared, “I’m funny. I’ve always been funny.”

As the night went on, Kozelek asked his friends Al (Sparhawk) and Mimi (Parker, also of Low) to join him for a couple of songs. Sparhawk took the stage and mentioned that he thought Mimi had already left, giving the crowd a good laugh as they called out for her from the stage. Sparhawk accompanied Kozelek for renditions of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” before being taken by surprise when Kozelek began playing Sonny and Cher’s loving duet, “I Got You Babe.” It was a genuinely fun moment between the two and the audience definitely felt the connection and appreciated the silliness from two guys who don’t often get characterized as such.

After Sparhawk took his leave, Kozelek was about to start performing when he noted that “I wish I had someone who could play a one-note guitar part” and then slyly bellowed, “Alan, get out here!” Sparhawk sheepishly emerged from backstage in order to play the droning guitar part and a couple of “beer commercial rock” solos during Kozelek’s song “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock.” As the song’s chanting ending came to a close, Sparhawk attempted to join in on the singing, but noticeably not wanting to sing the titular line, he instead just added the word “drugs” to the chorus, which amused the audience to no end.

Kozelek ended the 18-song show by thanking the audience again, saying that he wished he could sing for us all night and giving us a heartbreaking a cappella version of “He Always Felt Like Dancing.”

So, as far as reviews go, I thought it was only fair to ask some of the folks who came to Karpeles on Thursday what they thought. Here’s some fan feedback, via Facebook

“Mark is real, and he is an old school storyteller and entertainer; by the end of the set I felt like I knew him personally. His set was a sort of biography. He sang Christmas Carols from his childhood, touring, his fear of the future, and what kind of person he wants to become. I was surprised by the journey; it will be another day or so before I can digest everything that happened, and it’s a good feeling.” – Dan Turner, Duluth

“My feelings on the show….I loved the venue…..perfect setting for Kozelek’s intimate music. Really intense performance, not many people are as raw as he is. I’d heard he’s pretty abrasive, but i actually enjoyed the banter last night, even though it dragged on at points.” – Darin Kamnetz, Eden Prairie

“Never have I seen Duluthians get as quiet as they do when Low takes the stage. There is a certain amount of reverence that sweeps through the crowd that is remarkable to watch. As for Mark Kozelek, he lived up to the well-publicized drama, however I was impressed by his self-deprecating humor coupled with well-crafted musical mockery (re: War On Drugs) that was offset by an immense amount of talent showcased in his mournful songs.  It was quite an enjoyable event, even if his ego held the audience hostage with a string of ‘last songs.'” – Ava Francesca Battocchio, Duluth

“Low was solid—as always—and Mimi blows me away with ‘Holy Ghost’ every time. I had been listening to Benji a lot and watching live performances of Kozolek on Youtube, but he was so incredible live. His songs are the perfect combination of heartbreak and beauty. And he is right, he is f—ing funny.” –Teresa Hill, Duluth

“I have nothing but good things to say about Low, I was more than happy to make the drive to see them in their hometown. This was my first time seeing Mark Kozelek live. I was a bit worried when he did the first two songs a cappella, but out came the guitar, and boy can he play! With his dry banter and lyrics, I suggest people see this guy and give him more credit. The duet of ‘I Got You Babe’ was fun. This was a great pairing.” – Jason Larkin, St. Paul

“Angelic and awe-inspiring. Bittersweet thought provoking music, telling a story that was everyone’s story. A silent northern night I will never forget.” – Emma Deaner, Duluth

“It takes a special talent for one person to captivate an entire room full of people for two straight hours. That’s exactly what Kozelek did. His storytelling, impressive guitar playing, raw lyrics, and powerful voice all contributing different textures to the evening. One of the most captivating solo shows I’ve ever seen. It was a special night.” – Mayor Don Ness, Duluth

  • Ann Klefstad

    Great review! Beautiful coverage of context, history, and subtleties along with the music. Thanks!

  • Bryson Coles

    Thanks for the excellent and detailed write-up. It would be great if he put this out as a live album, too.

  • Max Ashburn

    After hearing Mayor Ness on Prairie Home Companion last week and now seeing him quoted in a review of Mark Kozelek show I must say Duluth has one cool Mayor!