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Quiet? Sure, but He's No Mr. Nice Guy


Published: March 23, 2004

Plenty of performers delight in baiting the audience, but this was an audience that delighted in baiting the performer. Soon after he took the stage at Bowery Ballroom on Sunday night, Mark Kozelek, performing as Sun Kil Moon, earned chuckles when he told a photographer in the front row that the camera's clicking was distracting him. "You're going to see the fine line between me being a nice guy and a whole other different thing," Mr. Kozelek mumbled, only half-joking.

A few minutes later a man in the balcony cried, "Get rid of the violins" (referring to the violinist and violist), and there was a murmur as people anticipated the response. "Let's not even acknowledge the guy," Mr. Kozelek grumbled, and then he did — with a salty epithet.

This was an oddly restive start to a night generally dedicated to stillness. As the leader of the Red House Painters, Mr. Kozelek perfected his fiercely methodical approach, writing and singing slow-building ballads streaked with melodrama and steeled by stoicism. With his new (but not radically different) project, Sun Kil Moon, he has recorded one of the best albums of his career, "Ghosts of the Great Highway" (Jetset), and on Sunday night he unfurled his measured, mysterious songs for a room full of true believers.

For "Pancho Villa" he drew out the long, plaintive notes while the strings orbited around him, playing a graceful ostinato. And for "Carry Me Ohio," also from "Ghosts of the Great Highway," he was accompanied only by a pair of acoustic guitars, singing a lament so stately and so hopeless ("Sorry that I could never love you back/I could never care enough, in these last days") that it seemed to last forever.

Mr. Kozelek isn't a cynic, but that doesn't mean he's not a curmudgeon. That melancholy voice conceals not only a sharp wit but also, it seemed, a quick temper. A fan who asked a question about his guitar was informed, deadpan, "It's the guitar that got bashed over your head."

When he realized that Courtney Love had played the same room a few nights before, Mr. Kozelek sang a brief, modified version of his song "Glenn Tipton" in her honor. On the album it begins, "Cassius Clay was hit more than Sonny Liston," but he changed it to, "Courtney Love is scarier than Sonny Liston," and then he took the cruel joke further. "Courtney Love should be gagged and thrown in prison/Until she learns to live and respect her children," he sang, in that same deadpan voice he used all night, a quiet voice but not always a gentle one.


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