(From the now-defunct site ShowListTix; March, 2011)
There aren’t many concerts where the concept of aging gets full-throated cheers from the audience. It will likely surprise no one to learn that The Mountain Goats, the brainy, nerdy, decades-long project helmed by singer and songwriter John Darnielle is one of the few bands whose audience really gets excited by the idea of growing up. Looking around the room last night, at the first of a trio of sold-out Mountain Goats shows at the Bowery Ballroom, it was obvious that the be-spectacled crowd, where even the drunken louts were wearing tweed blazers, had done more growing up than your average rock and roll audience. There were some non-diegetic reasons for this: a fairly high $25 ticket price, and the fact that The Mountain Goats had its main explosion of popularity in 2002, when the band’s All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee both became college radio staples. As someone who worked at a college radio station in Tallahassee at the time, it would strain credulity to tell you the rapturous reception that last album got in the halls of my station (WVFS Tallahassee, V89), despite the less-than-flattering portrait it paints of life in Florida’s capital.
Of course, the band has followed up on the success of those records, with releases like we Shall All Be Healed, Heretic Pride, and the just-released All Eternal’s Deck. Each has been hailed as more masterful, more musical, more confessional, more funny, more referential (the valley often cited as the birthplace of humanity and Charles Bronson both earn songs on the latest disc) than the last.
So, what is it like to actually watch the Mountain Goats perform? The analogy that seemed the most useful and last night’s chatty and intellectual affair, was a live recording of This American Life, where the audience won’t stop shouting out stories they want to hear. “THE ONE WITH PHIL COLLINS!! CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS!! THE ONE WHERE SOMEONE IS WRONGLY IMPRISIONED!!” John Darnielle is Ira Glass in this analogy, of course, a comparison made all the more strong by his singular voice, loved by fans and deeply loathed by detractors. He seems to turn the idea of singing or being a rock star inside-out with his high-whine of a voice that sings lyrics whose every line seems to contain about 10 times more words than a human should ever attempt to sing.
Last night, Darnielle was chatty between songs, recommending heavy metal documentaries, discussing his choice of jackets, the life-span of rats, drinking, and, of course, the deeply personal inspirations for many of his songs. After those latter lines of thought, he would inevitably become self-conscious and worry that “the internet” would accuse him of pandering for applause.
As if such a thing was necessary. The audience was extremely excited for the entire two-hour runtime of the show, singing along to virtually every song, a grab-bag of tracks from Darnielle’s prolific two-decade career. They cheered meaningful lines (“I hope the people who were mean to you/ Have trouble sleeping at night” from “You Were Cool”), they cheered funny lines (“Anyone here mentions Hotel California dies before the first line clears his lips” from “Liza Forever Minelli”), and they cheered uncontrollably when Darnielle brought out another of geek rock’s leading lights, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, to help him sing “This Year,” the incredibly popular final song of the evening. Finn, in glasses and with thinning hair, approaching middle age, flailed around by way of dancing, smiled a huge smile, and joyously sang a few lines from “This Year.” He fit right in.