Show Review: Sun Kil Moon At The Opera House

By James Li

Mark Kozelek is a singer-songwriter from Ohio armed with nothing more than a nylon-string guitar and a deadpan wit, but he has a reputation for being one of the surliest live performers around. Kozelek, who fronted Red House Painters and now performs as Sun Kil Moon, is famous for being impatient with concertgoers who chat or use their phones during his set. During a recent performance in Raleigh, North Carolina, he insulted the crowd for talking, calling them “fucking hillbillies” and threatening to walk off. When I bought tickets to see Sun Kil Moon, the promoter reminded us that a strict no photo or video policy was in place, and we were asked to keep our phones off.

Thankfully, Kozelek was in a good mood when he played Toronto’s Opera House. He came on stage, joined by an electric guitarist, a keyboardist, and two drummers, including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, and assured us that he was actually a “very nice guy.” The band kicked off their set with a one-two punch of “I Know It’s Pathetic but That Was the Greatest Night of My Life” and “Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here,” two short songs with some very verbose song titles.

He then continued with some more stage banter. He said that playing in Toronto was like being on a great date, but compared Raleigh to a being on a date with a “crazy bitch,” and that he loved Canadians (judging by the response from the audience, the feeling was mutual). The middle stretch of his set consisted of songs from Benji, the latest album from Sun Kil Moon. Played live, “Dogs” and “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” sound more raw and electrifying than the sparse arrangements they’re given on record.

“I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same,” Benji’s longest track, was a sprawling tribute to Led Zeppelin. Kozelek sang that his favourite songs were “Rain Song” and “Bron-Yr-Aur,” and it definitely showed through in the song’s gorgeously flamenco-inflected guitar outro. The highlight for me, though, was Kozelek leading a three-part harmony in singing “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” a powerfully simple performance that would devastate anyone who has a mother and loves her.

The last third of the set were not Sun Kil Moon songs, but came from Perils from the Sea, a collaboration between Kozelek and post-rock musician The Album Leaf. Kozelek assured us that “Gustavo,” written about a bad experience Kozelek had with hiring an illegal immigrant day labourer, was “not a racist song.” The song tied together the mundane and the tragic, taking a sad turn when Gustavo is arrested for drunk driving and is deported. He also played “You Missed My Heart,” and revealed to the audience that the lyrics were inspired by a nightmare he had in a St. Catharines, Ontario hotel room.

When the band came back for an encore, they played two more songs off Perils from the Sea: “By the Time That I Awoke” and “Ceiling Gazing,” both songs that deal with Kozelek’s jet-lagged life on the road. Kozelek explained to the audience that he was exhausted after having to kill time at Pearson Airport, so he sounded a little weary during the encore.

I came to the Sun Kil Moon show worried that I would be treated rudely, but I was instead treated to a night of captivating storytelling. I only had a few minor complaints: it was a little difficult to hear the lyrics at times, he didn’t play any material from earlier albums like Ghosts of the Great Highway, and I caught some sneaky audience members taking photos and videos. But with that said, Sun Kil Moon are a great live act – just make sure you catch Mark on a good day, keep quiet, and listen.


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