Live Review: Mark Eitzel, Philadelphia, PA, July 28, 2009

eitzel350bAs the leader of American Music Club and a solo artist, 50-year-old Mark Eitzel has toured with numerous configurations and players during the past two-plus decades, from a full band to solo with guitar. This night in Philadelphia was the penultimate stop on a small tour mostly confined to the Northeast corridor that featured a new arrangement: just Eitzel and a piano player, Marc Capelle. Billed as “Mark Eitzel Performs American Music Club,” this “kind of a Tony Bennett thing I guess,” as Eitzel wrote on his blog, gave him the freedom to concentrate solely on singing—and his hilarious stage antics. Eitzel has always been a mix of stand-up comic, self-deprecating curmudgeon who constantly apologizes for his “stupid songs” and confident showman. And with just a microphone in his hand, here Eitzel was free to fully indulge in a sad-clown lounge-act persona that fit him well.

Hopping onto the stage at Johnny Brenda’s in a trucker hat and baggy chino pants, a bearded Eitzel fidgeted around the whole set, repeatedly sitting down on a chair, then getting back up again (often during songs), all while alternately beaming to the crowd and shying away. After saying hi, he talked about getting a new career, such as cleaning toilets, but only for “people who are sanitary.” Then, on a dime,  he started singing and sent the crowd from loose laughter to arrested silence with a longing cover of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and his own wrenching “Mission Rock Resort.”

This pattern would happen throughout the show. Eitzel would crack jokes about his life, his age, Roberta Flack, other shows on the tour, former band members, Facebook, and then casually launch into poignant laments such as AMC tunes “Decibels And Little Pills,” “The Thorn In My Side Is Gone” and “Nightwatchman” (Eitzel got choked up at one point during this one) that just inspired awe with their bruised lyrics and Eitzel’s room-filling voice. He may have the most human voice in rock music. It is all of this at once: sad, defiant, wounded, sentimental, understanding, hopeful, resigned. Big as the biggest adjective and commanded with elegantly flawed grace, Eitzel’s voice can make your ears cry. The way he draws out syllables, the way he pulls back from the microphone to sing unamplified and then leans loudly back in. Astonishing.

On a few tunes, including a beautifully rendered “Last Harbor” and one from a musical Eitzel recently wrote with British playwright Simon Stephens, Capelle would start the song and Eitzel would immediately ask him to slow it down. “Slower, slower, slower,” he said at one point, walking over to the keyboard and coaching Capelle’s fingers down to a lilting crawl.

If you have seen Eitzel live, you know he sometimes can’t seem to wait to get off the stage and has a tendency to abort songs and end sets abruptly. On this night, he never seemed to want to leave. After taking a bow together following the main set, Eitzel and Capelle treated the crowd to two encores. The first featured a cheeky reading of “Me And Mrs. Jones” with the “Mrs.” changed to “Mr.” For the second, Eitzel offered a choice of either “Blue And Gray Shirt” or “No Easy Way Down.” The fans shouted competing preferences. So they played both, the piano floating just perfectly, unobtrusively, under that wondrous voice.

—Doug Sell; photo by Lea Bogdan

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