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James Skinner , April 2nd, 2014 11:35

James Skinner reviews Mark Kozelek at Sala Apolo in Barcelona, and finds him in combative mood, doing battle with chatters, texters, and the like. Photo by Valerio Berdini

About halfway through tonight's Sun Kil Moon show, Mark Kozelek takes a minute to ask a girl with her elbows propped up on the stage if she's having a good time or not. She nods, slowly and impassively. Doesn't smile. "'Cause you sure look pretty bummed out," he probes. "I mean, you're right here at the front. I sure hope you're having a good time."

It's one of a number of interactions with the audience this evening. Some are jovial, some strained, and one in particular results in Kozelek asking a guy to meet him outside the venue after the show to settle a disagreement with their fists. (The guy is stood right in front of Kozelek, and has been talking throughout the set.) "I'm just in that kind of mood," he states, to laughter and applause, after verbally taking down his opponent. The challenge diffuses the tension, but there's a definite edge around tonight's performance: you get the impression that he's only half-joking.

It's an eventful show, then, but against all odds kind of a brilliant one - packed with the kind of incident that make up what many a recent Kozelek song sounds like. He and his band leave the stage after a lengthy, digression-filled set as victors, following a show that was pretty hard-fought at times; smartphones, audience chatter and bouts of disrespect vanquished, or at least put in their place, for a little while. To wit: after a few songs Kozelek is genuinely perplexed at the amount of people toward the front simply tapping away at their smartphones while he plays, faces lit up in telltale neon shades. When he asks what they're doing, one replies that they're broadcasting how great the show is. "Can't it fucking wait? Until after the show?" is Kozelek's incredulous response.

Earlier in the evening, he takes the stage in a crisp black shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, picks up his classical guitar and props his left foot on a brick to accommodate his style of playing. He opens with 'Black Kite', the song that closed 2012's Among the Leaves, and while the mix is muddy and cloaked in unnecessary reverb, the performance, after a shaky first couple of lines, is stunning: precise Spanish-hued shapes giving way to delicate, finger-picked chords and a lyrical study of desolation, accompanied by subtle brush strokes on the drum kit.

After this, players on electric guitar and keys appear and commence a two-and-a-half-hour show mostly given over to songs from this year's remarkable Benji LP. Largely on account of Kozelek's eyes-closed, trance-like playing, songs such as 'Carissa', 'Truck Driver' and 'I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love' are fantastic, while 'Dogs' - a wilfully frank, sordid catalogue of formative sexual experiences - is aborted twice, Kozelek so gleefully overwhelmed at the cheers greeting a song he describes as "entirely about oral sex and fucking."

It's a great rendition, Kozelek bellowing into his mic and the band picking up a good head of steam, and is, as stated, rapturously received. From hereon in, Kozelek engages the audience with warm anecdotes regarding how he met Vasco, his touring guitarist from Portugal, the disparity in attractiveness between Spanish and Belgian audiences, and a trip made that day to the dentist, necessitated by his breaking a tooth on some "strange," unnamed French cuisine. He gently chides said guitarist for fluffing his lines ("You can do this, Vasco. It's only four chords"), shares his love for Heliogabal, a legendary tiny venue in the city ("I have a great time every time I go there... I get laid every time I go there"), apologises for how much water he's consuming between songs ("I'm just so fucking thirsty") and thanks the crowd profusely both for coming out and being a fairly even split between "sad-looking guys in shirts" and girls. (The predominantly male, single nature of his fanbase appears to have been much on his mind the last couple of years. It's something that, on this evidence, genuinely bemuses him.)

He also seethes so much when the guy he later challenges to a fight protests his innocence ("Everyone here can see you're a fucking idiot," he tells him, more than once) that a run through ranging Benji centrepiece 'I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same' is rushed and ultimately truncated when it should really be a highlight of the evening. "Just punch the cunt, Mark," rings out a northern-accented voice at one incongruous moment during an increasingly bitter exchange.

Ironically, I don't catch everything he says during a quieter admonishing of those who won't stop talking due to the couple behind me, who spend at least half the show chatting loudly and brazenly about nothing in particular, seemingly failing to register neither the singer nor what he's trying to impart not ten feet away. The rise of the 'gig-talkers' is something David Bennun contemplated at length in this article for The Quietus (have a look at his first cited example of the phenomenon!), and it's something that makes a considerable impact on tonight's performance. Kozelek's taking them to task is ugly at times, but commendable and wholly understandable, and as the set eases into older material and cuts from last year's collaborative LPs with Desertshore and Jimmy LaValle, a kind of uneasy truce seems to have been reached. He glares at certain offending parties while introducing 'Gustavo' as a song about "a guy" who he "wanted to fucking kill," but later thanks said parties for "not talking through those last few songs." Some songs, like 'Micheline' and 'I Watched The Film...', suffer, though the urgency of 'Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes' is only amplified in what amounts to a devastating showing.

Through it all, for better or worse, Kozelek remains a uniquely compelling presence. Like the lyrics to his often self-referential songs, he's equally as capable of a cruel thought or flippant joke as he is of easy affability and disconcerting levels of self-reflection. There's not a trace of artifice there, and while a reverent audience (and consequently easier-going performer) might have been agreeable, to see it all laid bare in such a manner is quite something. It is, once again, pretty brilliant - just not necessarily for all the right reasons.