Archive for November, 2009

The Mountain Goats in Concert

November 6, 2009

The Mountain Goats (TMG) opened their fall tour Nov. 4 at the Ladies Literary Club in Grand Rapids Michigan. The venue is an old theater–the building itself is a registered historical landmark–that Calvin College bought and turned into a concert venue. TMG was the third concert I have seen there (Andrew Bird and Rosie Thomas’s Christmas concert were the other two), and I have been impressed with the atmosphere and acoustics each times. The musicians are on the theatrical stage, which helps draw you in to the performance and gives the whole experience a classy-hipster feel.

The opening act for the tour is Final Fantasy, the recording name of violinist-singer Owen Pallett. Pallett creates dense, multiple violin loops which he then sings and plays over. The effect is similar to Andrew Bird’s “Anonanimal,” though Final Fantasy’s rhythms and song progressions are less conventional and accessible than some of Bird’s recent work.

I hadn’t even seen a picture of John Darnielle, singer for The Mountain Goats, before the concert, so I didn’t know what to expect in terms of his stage presence. From the TMG songs I’ve heard, my mental picture was of an introspective, somewhat defensive and distant guy who would have difficulty connecting with the crowd. I also thought he might be balding and slightly overweight.

But no, Darnielle looks rather fit, and instead of being reserved onstage, he more often had difficulty containing his joy and energy. It felt kind of like those reunion tours with bands who used to hate the business (and each other) but have reformed because they realize how much they enjoy making music. They might not look as young and cool as they once did, but they don’t care. I don’t think Darnielle ever looked really young or very cool, and I’m almost positive he has never cared. He often seemed surprised at how good his band sounded. My sister-in-law said she thought he must have been hard to keep under control as a child.

All of the energy in the performance was counterbalanced by the lyrical weight of TMG’s songs, which have often dealt with desperation and abuse, and their new album, The Life of the World to Come, adds martyrdom and theodicy to the mix. He introduced one song by saying, “Now I’m going to play a song about someone getting tortured to death,” and it was not the song I was thinking of. Every song title on the record is a Bible verse, which led Darnielle to joke that he hopes a song from it become a big hit so everyone will shout out, “Deuteronomy 2:10!” at concerts.

Darnielle mentioned during his introduction to “Hebrews 11:40” that he wrote the song on a tour stop in Salt Lake City, because he was thinking about Mormons and how important the resurrection of the body is to them. He’s Catholic himself, he said, so he can kind of go either way on the “get your body back forever/never see it again” question.

One of my favorite new TMG songs is a bonus track from the new record, “Enoch 18:14,” so I was both surprised and please that he played it during the set. The song’s chorus:

You and your brother
You both escaped the curse
So you can’t comprehend what it’s like

made me think it was about his very difficult childhood, which he wrote about in detail on The Sunset Tree, but Darnielle said that the song was actually inspired by a video game called Ruin Sphere, and that the chorus comes directly from one of the game’s cut scenes.

The Goats record I know (and like) best is Heretic Pride, and I was a little disappointed he didn’t play more songs from it–I was especially hoping for “Autoclave,” “Sax Rohmer #1,” or “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”–but when you have as many good songs as Darnielle (he’s been recording since the early 90s), it’s inevitable that someone’s favorites won’t get played. His duet with Owen Pallett on two songs early in the set was also a highlight. Overall, I wished the concert would have lasted longer, which is always a sign it was a good show.