Mark Eitzel
Ace of Cups, Columbus, November 24
by Stephen Slaybaugh

One of the most enjoyable aspects of returning home for the holidays is reconvening with old friends, and going back to Columbus, this often takes shape in musical form. As such, there was no better place to be Saturday night than at Ace of Cups, the club owned by Scrawl’s Marcy Mays, who opened the night. Accompanied by a guitarist I didn’t recognize, Mays covered a wide range of songwriters, including Mark Lanegan and Jessi Coulter. In each instance, Mays made each composition her own, her crimson voice ranging from gossamer rasp to ringing croon as needed. Hell, she even made a song by Mars Volta sound good, which is a much more impressive accomplishment than the old cliche about singing the phone book.

Mays, of course, still lives in Columbus, so it was headliner Mark Eitzel who was back in town. Eitzel spent his formative years in Columbus before heading to the West Coast, and though the date in the Ohio capitol was a logical stop between Chicago and Cleveland, it also made it possible for him to visit his sister, who was in attendance. Near the beginning of his set, Eitzel commented that it was difficult playing in Columbus, because “everybody is cool,” and throughout the night, as he explained each song in his setlist, it became apparent that the city still looms large in his songwriting, much more than I ever realized.

Indeed, after opening with “What Holds the World Together” from his American Music Club songbook, Eitzel explained that the next song, “I Love You But You’re Dead” from his new album, Don’t Be a Stranger, was inspired by an incident at Mr. Brown’s, a Columbus club that closed sometime in the ’80s. He also explained that “Mission Rock Resort,” a track from his solo debut, 60 Watt Silver Lining, that seems particularly San Franciscan, was about a woman he met at an Elvis Costello concert at the Agora, now the Newport Music Hall up the street. And though he didn’t play “Ronald Koal Was a Rock Star” from 2009’s Klamath, he did talk about how, “like every girl in Columbus,” he wanted to sleep with Koal, a musician who made a name for himself locally in the late ’80s and eventually took his own life in 1993 after moving to Berlin.

As on other recent tours, Eitzel was backed by a lone keyboardist, which in this case was David Nagler. And while the backing works with songs like AMC’s “I Believe You” and “Apology for an Accident,” the latter because Eitzel’s singing transcends any instrumentation, I’m still not sold on the approach. Eitzel told me after the show that he has a hard time playing acoustic guitar and singing at the same time, but there’s no reason he can’t hire someone to play guitar in the same manner he employs a keyboardist. “Decibels and Little Pills” and, generally, his playlist at large would benefit from a more organic approach.

That’s not to say the show wasn’t enjoyable; the closing “Gratitude Walks” was as stirring as ever. If anything, my greatest complaint was that, given the banter and apologies between songs, the hour Eitzel spent onstage wasn’t long enough. I’ve seen Eitzel perform about a dozen times, and he’s been better and worse, so it is the little things—like seeing Eitzel and Ron House, who released a single by Eitzel’s Naked Skinnies in the ’80s, dance together during “Crabwalk”—that will stick out in my mind.