Paradise in Chicago with Sun Kil Moon

Reviewed by: Erik Anderson

On Saturday, far from the chaos of Riot Fest, the Old Town School of Folk Music presented the enigmatic Sun Kil Moon, one of the many creative outlets of singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek. With an often-changing cast of other musicians around him, you never really know what to expect from a Kozelek show until you arrive. This night was exceptionally sparse. Mark sang, his friend Patrick played piano, and that was all it took to create a heart wrenching, hilarious, and thoroughly memorable night. 

This was my second time seeing Mark perform, almost a year to the day after his last concert in Chicago, the first concert I ever attended in this town, and I feel like his concerts here have become a sort of holiday for me. The intimacy of his shows hold a special place in my heart and always provide much-needed respite from the many stresses of life. 

Kozelek has a very powerful relationship with Chicago, having used the city as a muse for the songs, “Sunshine in Chicago,” “Hello Chicago,” and “Live in Chicago.” He talked about how he has stayed at the same hotel over the twenty years he has been playing shows in the city, and how glad he was to return to our grime after a Canadian leg of the tour where he found the cities polished, boring, and without character. 

Mark’s performances truly reflect his personality and his songwriting: unique and unapologetic. The show consisted of nearly four hours of long stories, personal audience interaction, and literally whatever else Mark wanted. He has had a storied career, but as is a staple of Mark, he did not play most any of his biggest songs simply because he did not want to. 

His recent albums have been characterized by his acclaimed classical guitar work, but even that was absent because he has grown tired of the stress of touring, singing, and playing guitar live. This is understandable, though, as he sings most of his songs from packets of lyrics on a music stand–songs that can span upwards of twenty minutes and rarely follow traditional structures. 

The show could be nicely summed up by a few key audience interactions. At some point in the set he began asking the audience what they thought of the show, before stopping himself and admitting, “I don’t give a f@#&.” Classic Kozelek. At another point, he saw two women leaving and remarked to great audience laughter that he did not sound enough like Death Cab For Cutie or Kurt Vile for them. Finally, he asked a group of people leaving in between songs if they were just going to the bathroom. Two of them yelled yes, but a third, a disgruntled twenty-something, responded loudly about Mark’s views on millennials being shallow and how he should really reconsider his thoughts. Kozelek, of course, did not care, did not even respond, and decided to start the next song.  

Sun Kil Moon songs are deeply personal stories that all seem to deal with the dichotomies in Mark’s life. The love of touring, but the loneliness of travel. The gratification of promiscuity, but the longing for love. The pureness and security of relationships, but the sadness of saying goodbye. The great freedom of America, but the harrowing tragedies that result from that freedom. “Where’s Gilroy”, a fifteen-minute track off an upcoming album, had Mark thoughtfully reflecting on gun violence while still throwing in some funny Geddy Lee impressions. 

His songs are often strange, winding, and asymmetrical. He sang, “Where is this song going?/ Where does any song go?” Hotel breakfasts, rooms, receptionists, booking agents, and bandmates take up so many of his lyrics because those are the people and places he so often experiences. Kozelek laid out his style succinctly, elaborating that he would be a fraud if he did not write and sing about what was truly going on in his life. I think that his honesty is why myself and so many others are drawn to his music and keep coming back show after lengthy show. 

The mid-song interjections about the venue’s excessive air conditioning, audience members who appear to have fallen asleep, and the piano sounding really loud and Bruce Hornsby-esque, are all purely Mark Kozelek. This Sun Kil Moon show was the only place where I have witnessed a lead singer notice a fan sitting by himself, go down in the middle of the show to have a conversation with him, sing an entire song from the seat next to the fan, and then invite him on stage to sing a duet.  

Mark Kozelek may come off as crass and egotistical (he half-jokingly referred to himself onstage as one of the greatest living singers and songwriters), but he is clearly full of empathy and love. “My Love for You Is Undying” was unbelievably heartfelt. “This Is My Dinner” expressed beautiful memories and raw sadness that could be seen in Mark’s eyes. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”, the only song played off Sun Kil Moon’s biggest record, “Benji,” was a lovely closer that was warmly dedicated to his pianist’s mother for her birthday. 

It was a long concert full of long songs, but I would not have had it any other way. Mark’s strong connection with the audience and with Chicago itself was palpable, and that is why I never miss a Chicago Sun Kil Moon show, my new favorite holiday in the city.


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