“I’m spilling my guts up here and you guys won’t shut up.”
So went one of several tense exchanges between Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek and his audience Friday at The Neptune Theatre.
In contrast to the delicate, vulnerable nature of his songwriting, the San Francisco singer-guitarist’s disposition can be ornery, even caustic.
Friday, however, his ire was warranted.
Before he even played a note, Kozelek was fighting an uphill battle. The venue staff was asleep at the switch, unresponsive to his pleas for more light onstage and more reverb on his nylon-stringed guitar.
Misreading his frustration as contempt, some showgoers started heckling Kozelek, casting a pall of negativity over a night meant to celebrate the 47-year-old artist’s current renaissance.
“I’ll be playing songs from all my albums… released in the last nine months,” he deadpanned at one point. While he wasn’t exaggerating — he’s issued four in that time — the two-hour set emphasized his latest, the autobiographical “Benji.”
Joined by a drummer and a keyboardist, Kozelek began with atmospheric renditions of the tragic “Carissa” and tender “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” transitioning into sunlit lullabies (“Micheline”) and stormy dirges (“Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes”) before reaching the hypnotic, drawn-out “I Watched The Film ‘The Song Remains The Same’” — the zenith of both the record, and the performance.
His full-bodied baritone filled the room, and his intricate meditations on life, love and loss hit listeners in the heart, the fallout from the early technical problems beginning to settle.
The remainder of the setlist mixed heartbreak and humor. On “Caroline” and “Katowice Or Cologne” — from collaborative LPs with post-rock acts The Album Leaf and Desertshore, respectively — Kozelek opined on the loneliness of solo touring, while “Livingstone Bramble,” also from the Desertshore sessions, found him bragging playfully about his own guitar prowess.
Stylistically, it was all so different from the navel-gazing slowcore of Red House Painters, his 1990s group, that requests for older material felt antagonistic.
Kozelek tried to maintain his cool, and generally succeeded. Yet as the evening wore on, with each between-song break came a feeling of anxiety that someone might say something rude enough to make him walk offstage.
Where louder bands can drown out critics with sheer volume, acoustic singer-songwriters require undivided attention. No musician should ever be forced to explain that if you want to drink and talk, you should go to a bar. Certainly not one as accomplished as Kozelek.
At this phase of his career, he should only have to compete with himself, not with a crowd.