Volatile The Mountain Goats show delights fans
The Mountain Goats pulled through technical difficulties with aplomb
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 08:10
The house lights turned on. Applause slowed, then stopped. The crowd, sweaty and exhausted, groaned with disappointment and began to reluctantly crawl to the exits and merch tables. For those at the House of Blues Thursday night, The Mountain Goats’ concert had ended. And The Mountain Goats’ fans do not like it when The Mountain Goats shows end.
But when all hope appeared lost, John Darnielle, Peter Hughes and John Wurster roared frantically back on stage.
“The show is not over!” Darnielle cried. “We don’t know why the house lights turned on! Come back!” And with those words, an unbelievable surge of energy struck the room. The Mountain Goats fans are often noted for their religious devotion, passion that has even inspired a piece dedicated to the topic in New York Magazine, but this unexpected moment sent all in attendance, devotees and fair−weather fans alike, crowding the stage with palpable joy. They were witnessing, against all odds, a resurrection.
Strangely, it all made sense. More than almost any other theme in their arsenal, The Mountain Goats write and sing about the eventual triumph of the small and vulnerable over the large and oppressive, be it Darnielle himself in his autobiographical songs in “The Sunset Tree” (2009), or aspiring metal musicians in the track “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton,” a fan favorite from Darnielle’s cassette−recording era that closed out the surprise double−encore.
The decades−long career of The Mountain Goats also embodies this underdog spirit: starting out with just one man, a guitar and a boombox, Darnielle self−released hundreds of lo−fi songs for years as he gradually accumulated an extremely dedicated fan base. In 2002, Darnielle signed to 4AD and officially expanded The Mountain Goats into a proper band. He eventually incorporated drummer John Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes into the permanent core. Since then, pleasing his ever−expanding cult has been a delicate balancing act of promoting the newer, shinier material while preserving the nostalgia for his old recordings that long−time fans hold on to.
The opening set from Matthew E. White was tight but unexciting; while White arranged the horns on The Mountain Goats’ new album “Transcendental Youth” (2012), he also played as The Mountain Goats’ opener and then contributed a horn section for the main act. Horns are just another step away from Darnielle’s humble beginnings, but their live incorporation brought magnetic richness that made less instantly catchy new material more digestible, like the powerful “In Memory of Satan,” a tale about discovering Satanism to deal with depression, or “White Cedar,” which Darnielle singled out as being especially close to his heart. Long trumpet blares communicate the song’s desperate message excellently, though the effect is more supplemental than central.
On the other hand, “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator” and “Harlem Roulette” did not need the magic of horns to captivate the crowd. With instantly recognizable choruses and driving melodies, the first new songs played were adopted with as much fervor as the older classics, such that the transition from familiar favorite “First Few Desperate Hours” to the more contemporary “Amy” occurred with minimal bumps and maximum singing along.
If the strength of the newer songs was a pleasant surprise, even more riveting were the songs Darnielle pulled out in the middle section of the show. Refusing to settle into a lull, the band shifted personnel onstage to keep the dynamics fresh. Hughes and Wurster left and returned in turn for duets with Darnielle on an poppy rendition of “Dance Music” and the harrowing “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” respectively. The latter marked the setlist’s finest moment: Darnielle teased a lightweight cover of a Billboard tune before creeping into “Ezekiel,” an incredibly sparse and lyrically dissonant piano haunt about a torture/murder committed in Northern Mexico.
Wurster’s cymbal washes and guttural, subtle drumbeats added depth to the rendition, but Darnielle owned the song with his deeply vulnerable vocal inflections. The Mountain Goats are, and have always been, the John Darnielle show; the band’s strengths and themes were best articulated when Darnielle took the stage alone. Instantly, he gratified longtime fans by performing — as requested on Twitter the night before — “Attention All Pickpockets,” a vividly descriptive tale of former lovers changed by time, and live−only paean to the high school outcast, “You Were Cool.” The subjects of both are potentially heartbreaking, but Darnielle delivered each with a delightful, deeply personal zest that could only indicate triumph.