by carl wilson

Live Notes in the Rearview:
1. The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle with Elvises, photo by (Mountain Goats bassist) Peter Hughes, not taken at the current Toronto Andy Warhol exhibition but somewhere else last year.

A backlog of notes, now that the Polaris pandemonium has died down, on recent live experiences. I'll begin with last night's Mountain Goats show, and work back through Jandek and to the Guelph jazz fest. 3, 2, 1: Go!

John Darnielle's body when he performs is a one-man symphony of tics, spasms, awkward dance moves and grotesque facial expressions. Even when he is just strumming the chords of a passage between verses in a very quiet song, he will bend one knee, squint, bare his teeth and half-spin around the stage as if he's rocking out on the solo to Crosstown Traffic. On Tuesday night at Lee's Palace in Toronto, he built up such emotional tension in many of the songs from the melancholy and hushed new album Get Lonely that the cartoony mannerisms made some spectators burst into giggles. It worked like a fart in church. And it was at those moments, most of all, that one saw the agonizingly gawky adolescent nerd in Darnielle poking through what in many other ways is a confident and commanding stage presence, through the authority that he takes on through the power of his writing, the status that he (like a lot of his geeky brethren) gains with his quick wit.

And it struck me then that this juxtaposition of the clever and often profound adult mind with the adenoidal voice and the barely-held-in-check guitar style and so on, just like the mix of charisma and physical awkwardness on stage, has a lot to do with how disarmed I often am by his music of any pretence to critical distance. Because I am just too much a part of his tribe. Some of his experiences, it's become clear in recent years, were much more extreme than mine, but they usually raise parallels (for instance, his songs about childhood abuse raise milder but still painful memories of childhood bullying). But the general personality set that comes through - hyperverbal, hyperactive, isolated but still extroverted - is awfully familiar, so much that when people in the audience the other night giggled at him, I got protective and a bit disproportionately pissed off. All of which adds up to a classic, adolescent-style fan relationship to the Mountain Goats that I seldom have for other music now.

It's a huge pleasure. But it's also really useful in a broad way: I was reflecting after the show that normally I listen to music somewhat through a critical framework I've built up over the years: Not only a set of reference points and terminology, but an ideology that maintains, for instance, that songs are by their nature as art an artificial construct, and so fantasizing about their authenticity or sincerity or autobiographical content is generally a mistake and a distraction. But when I have that teenaged feeling about an artist and their music, those thoughts start popping up - this desire to feel one's way into the singer's own personal thoughts and motivations, because the identification is so huge - you feel (don't you think?) that the artist is you, but a bigger and shinier you, who's saying what you want to say but aren't gifted enough to articulate. As a kid I kinda felt this way about every musician I loved, no matter how outlandish the connection: As my friend Eric said when I was chatting about this idea after the show the other night, "Yes, it turned out that I wasn't really all that much like Jimmy Sommerville." And my love life hasn't turned out to be very comparable to the romance of Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones. As an adult, I suspect that the identifications get a little more precise. Who knows? But they certainly get more rare. The twist, of course, is that I'm having these reactions to a songwriter who's just as aware as I am of the critical problems around authenticity and autobiography, has pretty much the same opinions, and has lately been more and more deliberately fucking with them. So it's that much easier for me to get sucked in, no coincidence. But it's a relief to realize I still have this capacity for projection and empathy through music, because it's such a large part of its potency - and it brings me as a critic back in touch with music listeners who aren't quite as caught up in textual and cultural analysis and are just there, swept up in the music, feeling the love.

And there was plenty of love at the Mountain Goats show here on Tuesday. I think John was feeling it too. This tour is no doubt difficult for him, because he has to generate a very different mood to bring these songs off than the "standard" Mountain Goats show that the fans expect. When someone shouted, "Play some old songs, John," early in the show, he responded that he liked the new songs better, so that if he played the old ones, he'd be pandering: "I'd be whoring, and I'm not a whore. I know I look like one. I'm pretty. But I'm not actually a whore." But after a couple more quiet Get Lonely numbers, which were very well received considering that many in the audience might not even have heard the record yet, he turned to the same guy in a forgiving mood and said, "I understand how it is. You go to see Nick Cave and he's doing everything from The Boatman's Call and you're like, I hate that fuckin' record. That's not what I want - piano ballads? So I'll do an older one. What do you want to hear?" The guy answered, "Water Song?" and Darnielle laughed: "Not that old! I'm surprised I even know what tape that was on - no way do I remember how to play it." So he sang Going to Cleveland.

Michael Barclay in the comments section on Zoilus last week remarked that he didn't get the musical appeal of the Mountain Goats, asking (I'm paraphrasing) whether anybody would give a shit about them if the words weren't so good. The answer's probably no - Mtn Goats fans are words people, surely - but that doesn't mean that the music's bad. Darnielle's been straightforward about the fact that he started making music because (along with being a huge music fan) he was writing poetry, and music seemed the best vehicle for it, since hardly anyone reads poetry and he wanted to reach people. But to make that wish come true - as obviously he's doing - the accompanying music has to do two things: It has to serve the words by giving them an appropriate emotional setting, and have enough lilt and force to make the song memorable. Mountain Goats songs may not seem musically impressive on the surface, but audiences seem to remember the words and music with more of Darnielle's stuff than just about any artist I've seen live in recent years - half the crowd's always mouthing the words or singing along. So for a lot of us the music does what it's supposed to do, make the poems and stories more meaningful and memorable and affecting - it fulfills the age-old bardic function. And that seems plenty. (Which doesn't mean that it will do that for Michael, which is just a matter of taste, although I won't get into the whole "too white" thing now except that some day I'm going to have to write a post about Funkism and the abuse of the word "uptight"). But I also think that on the recent albums, and the new one in particular, there's more and more concern for making the music exquisite in its own right. And that was borne out by this week's concert too.

The new material really sounded astounding. Darnielle is able to apply the same theatrical savvy to the soft and serious as he does to the loud and outrageous. And he likewise does it with exaggeration - if you think those songs are quiet on the CD, you should hear them live. They were damn near inaudible sometimes. And the quieter he got the quieter the crowd got. Cliches about pins dropping came to mind. Peter Hughes's supple, finely calibrated bass counted for more at those moments than ever before, too. I got shivers. I welled up. In introducing Cobra Tattoo, Darnielle spoke about some of the misapprehensions of the record: "A lot of people are calling it a 'breakup' album. Well, I guess you could say that, but what some of the people in these songs are breaking up with is Almighty God. Or their own DNA."

All that intensity made the cathartic release of the louder or funnier songs all the more joyous - most of all his cover of Houseguest, a darkly comic stalker anthem, "a song I didn't write but wish I did," originally by Darnielle's friend and collaborator Franklin Bruno (who plays piano on several recent Mtn Goats discs) with his band Nothing Painted Blue from the 1994 album Placeholders (still available via Absolutely Kosher, apparently). Darnielle did it like a theatrical monologue, acting out the whole plot of a film-noir parody, making every line feel like a punchline. It was delightful.

A couple of other theatrical highlights came with the introduction to Dance Music, in which he explained that the record player in the boy's bedroom in the song was actually a model rocket attached to a small turntable that came with some mini-flexidiscs ("now the collectors in the room are going, 'I've gotta find some of those' ") with recordings of the moon landing. Which forever changes how I'll hear that song, whether it's true or not. And then there was the full-crowd singalong to No Children, a newly minted Mountain Goats ritual that I wasn't even daring to hope would happen, much less come off so well. (Go, Toronto!) And there was likewise a really rousing shoutalong to the "Hail Satan!" climax of Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton in the second encore - but what I'll remember better is how he played the first half of that song with a new restraint, singing it dim and low like a tragedy, as if to imply that these characters too could have been included on Get Lonely, so that when he let rip vocally in the latter half, when the boys in the song get unfairly punished and squashed by their parents and school, with possible dark consequences (I thought of that sad messed-up fuck who went in shooting to Dawson College in Montreal last week), it sounded like what it really is, one of the finest and most on-point goddamn protest songs anybody has written this decade. Darnielle made a dedication: "This is for the young men and women I used to work with" - before the Goats became a full-time thing, Darnielle was a psychiatric nurse and worked in a group home for troubled kids - "who are now scattered to the four winds, and none of whom I will ever see again."

He also dedicated one song to Christine Fellows, his opening act, "whose boots I don't consider myself worthy to polish." And then he realized that what he was about to play was a pretty grim little number: "I've never done that before. Great way to create an awkward moment!" Fellows' set was really good as well, but this has been more than long enough, so I'll have to talk about her another time. Meanwhile, here is the Mountain Goats set list as best I can remember, probably with omissions and absolutely in the incorrect order. (Much later: Proper order here.) My only real disappointment was that he didn't play Woke Up New - I would have shouted for it, but hell, it's the single! I kept being sure it was coming. Damn you - and bless you - John Darnielle, for never being predictable.

Design Your Own Container Garden
Wild Sage
New Monster Avenue
You or Your Memory
Get Lonely
Going to Cleveland
Dance Music
Cobra Tattoo
Game Shows Touch Our Lives
Lion's Teeth
Moon over Goldsboro
In the Hidden Places
This Year

No Children (mass singalong)
Houseguest (cover of Franklin Bruno/Nothing Painted Blue)
(pre-encore dialogue w/ Peter. Overheard: "Do you think it's too obvious?")
Best Ever Death-Metal Band in Denton (lyric change: Instead of "the top three contenders after weeks of debate, were Satan's Fingers, and The Killers, and The Hospital Bombers," JD sang, "the top three contenders, which were later ripped off...")

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 20 at 10:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)



Yes, the singalong was really great -- even though I knew what to expect, having seen the Goats at the Pitchfork fest this summer.

Posted by mason on September 28, 2006 11:07 PM



fantastic review - it captured the MG experience and made me feel better about my own adolescent fan issue.

we need john and peter to come to vermont!

Posted by jim on September 26, 2006 6:31 PM



no children mass singalong!!! sheesh, i regret not living in toronto for the very first time.

Posted by mo on September 25, 2006 1:59 PM



I enjoyed this very much, Carl. Thank you.

Posted by brian on September 23, 2006 12:32 AM



1. The giggles in question weren't pleased but mocking. I could tell. I was standing right next to 'em. I laughed a lot at the show too, when things were funny, but this wasn't that kind of moment. In fact, the people who were giggling actually were trying to stop; they just couldn't help it.

2. But as I said, my protectiveness was disproportionate. I don't normally have a big reaction to other people's reactions. That's what made it telling.

Posted by zoilus on September 21, 2006 3:01 PM



I really enjoyed reading this, Carl. Thanks. I hope to be able to catch the Mountain Goats next week in DC.

Also, I look forward to any thoughts you might have on "funkism"...

Posted by Richard on September 21, 2006 10:34 AM



Word -- I also tend to laugh when delighted by movies, concerts, whatever. Doesn't mean I'm laughing at the performer or distancing myself from them or anything, quite the opposite.

Posted by DW. on September 21, 2006 9:45 AM



because you touched on the subject, and perhaps will address that in a future "Funkism" post, but I thought you might be interested to address:

I laugh at shows that I enjoy. I giggle, I smile and I chuckle. Mostly not because the show is funny because the show is simply incredible and I am enjoyig myself. I think this is a very appropriate emotional response to the performance. I get stares and aggressiveness, much like your protectiveness of Darnielle at the Mountain Goat show.

With that said, is there such a thing as inapropriate behavior while enjoying a show? As long as there is respect for your fellow concertgoer of course (I mean that trying to start a mosh pit at a Mountain Goat concert, for example, might not be the most respectful.) This has been touched by some classical reviewers, I remember Steve Smith talking about it, where people get pissed off when other people show their appreciation at the climax of a solo or at a the end of a movement. clapping in the middle of a "song" seems perfectly acceptable in Jazz but doesn't seem like the case in rock or classical. Banter between the crowd and the singer-songwriter types seems to be appropriate but not at a post-rock or psychedelic-rock show. Is it appropriate to dance at a noise show? Are the indie-kids standing around like zombies are too uptight, or simply unable, to dance?

Just throwing things your way...

Posted by simon on September 21, 2006 7:54 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson