Mark Kozelek is among the most laconic daredevils one will probably encounter. Though his understated persona may belie this bravery, the simple fact is that some of the moves the Red House Painters frontman pulled Tuesday night with his latest project, Sun Kil Moon, took flat-out guts.
Take the evening's final song. The beautifully fragile "Duk Koo Kim," a remembrance of sorts of the South Korean boxer who died after a 1982 bout, would have been a tough sell for any artist in a room the size of the Paradise.
Whether through an inherent confidence in his audience or foolish fearlessness, or perhaps some combination, Kozelek decided to further up the ante by unplugging his guitar and pushing the microphone away, singing unamplified.
The gambit was a mesmerizing success. Perhaps Kozelek had reason to be so brazen in the chances he took. Earlier he radically reworked the Cars' "All Mixed Up" and Kiss's "Shock Me." Backed by two guitarists (including fellow Red House Painter Phil Carney), a violinist, and viola player, he made both sweeping triumphs.
The entire evening was, in many ways, a series of dares. With nary a song clocking in at under six minutes, Kozelek's disinterest in accessibility was clear. But for listeners who were up to the challenge, the set was a lovely tour through his impressive songwriting catalog.
He segued smoothly into the Red House Painters' "Mistress" after jokingly asking his guitar-playing compatriots to "play some jazz," then admirably nailed the high notes at the song's conclusion. Earlier he had treated fans of that band to the melancholic memories of "New Jersey" as well as to a lovely version of "Summer Dress," with the enduringly evocative image of a woman "kissed by ocean mist."
Although many in attendance would have been happy with this nostalgic trip down memory lane, Kozelek refused to leave it at that. Sun Kil Moon's debut, "Ghosts of the Great Highway," has made a significant showing on college radio charts, and the singer introduced this material with determination, perhaps to show longtime devotees his best work was not in his back pages.
A long, delicate introduction eventually identified itself as "Salvador Sanchez," and the resulting melody was stark but fetching as three guitars combined beautifully with the other string instruments. A weepy slide guitar added an earthy authenticity to the murder ballad element of "Glenn Tipton," but Kozelek's humorously altered lyrics kept the song from getting too heavy.
Ultimately, whether introducing new material, revisiting old songs, or reinterpreting those by others, Kozelek had the support to go where he wanted.
Sun Kil Moon
With Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters
At: the Paradise, Tuesday