A rainy Tuesday night in December is certainly no measure of a performer’s worth or popularity, and as such, the sparse crowd in attendance at the Knitting Factory for Mark Eitzel’s first New York performance since suffering a heart attack in May and the headlining set by New Pornographers member Kathryn Calder seemed inversely proportionate to the talent onstage last night. Sure, it’s worrisome to see songwriters as gifted as these under-appreciated, but the intimacy wasn’t lost on me.
Eitzel and his accompanying keyboardist, who he would later introduce only as “Gary,” strolled onstage with little fanfare, the former American Music Club frontman proclaiming, “I might as well get it out of the way,” before delivering “Why I’m Bullshit” from Klamath, his most recent record from 2009. It was one of the few songs from his solo albums that he would play, the other being his cover of “No Easy Way Down” that led off his debut as a solo artist, 60 Watt Silver Lining. Even though Eitzel felt it necessary to explain that AMC, who had reunited in 2003 and released two new albums, was once again no more, his setlist favored the seminal band’s songbook. He appeared to have fully recovered from his health crisis, his voice as strong as ever as he delivered classics like “Gratitude Walks” from Mercury as well as several tracks from the band’s apparent swansong, The Golden Age.
But as evocative as his renditions of “Western Sky” and “What Holds the World Together” were, I’m not sure what has attracted him to being backed by a keyboard. Gary’s playing was tip-top, but the instrumentation seems incongruous to the songs themselves. Eitzel has frequently toured alone, rendering his back catalog on acoustic guitar with great intricacy. While his new approach isn’t exactly schmaltzy, it does come off like a lounge act of sorts, albeit a very poignant one. Eitzel is something of a ball of confusion himself, though. After relating why he doesn’t play new songs live anymore (YouTube), he proceeded to end his performance two songs later with a brand spanking new composition that we’ll call “Things Slip Through Your Hands” for want of a title. For all his contradictions and perhaps self-sabotaging decisions, though, Eitzel remains a songwriter like no other.
Kathryn Calder, on the other hand, could perhaps learn something from Eitzel’s idiosyncrasies—at least in regards to her live performance. Calder is on tour in support of her second solo album, Bright and Vivid, an album that lives up its name by meshing electronic pop with her folk-rock inclinations. It’s a quirky record that is equally tender and celebratory in turns. But with a standard backing (three guys on drums, guitar and bass), much of her set lacked the record’s dynamics. Indeed, songs like “New Frame of Mind” and “Turn a Light On” lost something of their complexity in this framework. And when she introduced “Who Are You?” as a “pop-synth tune,” it was seemingly with a note of regret, like such artificiality was a detriment, even though the song is one of her current release’s high points. It was also here that her performance became more nuanced, and “Walking in My Sleep,” which followed, was probably the most stunning moment of the night. Whenever Calder regressed to standard rock mode, though, her songs suffered. Still, one couldn’t help but be swept up in the moments when she transcended such trappings.