The Mountain Goats
Great American Music Hall
June 2, 2015
: Well, maybe not everything. But most things.
"This is a song about wrestling," John Darnielle says onstage while wearing a familiar combination of blazer and T-shirt, the latter of which read, “Obscure Wrestling Reference.”
The song was “Animal Mask,” but Darnielle could have said this introducing any number of songs during last night’s Mountain Goats show at the Great American Music Hall, because the band’s most recent album Beat the Champ
is all about pro wrestling. After “Animal Mask” the band went into a lovely performance of record’s opening track, “Southwestern Territory,” a reflection on the workday grind of someone in a larger-than-life career. If everything had been jokes and references to Jimmy Superfly Snuka and the like, it might have been any other band doing a themed show, but it wouldn’t quite be the Mountain Goats.
“The sheer deliciousness of evil.”
Darnielle introduced “Heel Turn 2,” one of Beat the Champ
’s most beautiful and compelling numbers, by explaining babyfaces and heels (the heroes and villains of wrestling) to the crowd, and how "heel turns" (when a good guy turns into a bad guy) allow one to luxuriate in that deliciousness. The new heels don’t expect to win — and they don’t — but winning is not the point of the turn. He told the story with familiarity and ease, noting he’d told the same exact story the night before at the Fillmore show, but it went down just as well with a crowd that might well have seen that show and the Amoeba solo performance on Sunday as well. Some fanbases are that dedicated, and in writing and singing songs about performers with wardrobes and catchphrases and a sense of working the crowd, Darnielle drew an implied parallel without having to beat it into the ground.
"I talk about the Grateful Dead too much, I know!"
Darnielle being photographed in front of the Grateful Dead house earlier in the day by drummer Jon Wurster was the least of it. There was the news of the huge archival Dead live set being released. There was the opening band Blank Range not really sounding like the Dead but being the kind of rough-edged, shaggy, and very American band that the Dead helped codify. And there was Darnielle talking about a Dead supercut online of nothing but the band tuning their instruments.
If the Mountain Goats had simply come out and said "To heck with it" and done a two-hour "St. Stephen" it probably would have made sense. Instead, on the performance of “Heel Turn 2,” assisted by local musical hero John Vanderslice on guitar, the band demonstrated how they may not be doing “Dark Star” as such, but that they’re ever more different than before. The strictly solo days are long gone, but even the initial duo and trio lineups are changed, the arrangements more expansive, multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas working with Darnielle, Wurster, and bassist Peter Hughes to draw out performances into something new, as an encore performance of “Song for Dennis Brown” showed.
"We are sleek and beautiful/ We are cursed!
It’s not that one line can sum up a body of work, but that selection, from a passionately-sung — and as is so often the case with a Mountain Goats show, loudly sung-along-with — “Slow West Vultures” — might serve as a means of explanation as to why Darnielle’s work has connected and continues to connect with so many. There were already cover versions of his songs being done by others back in 1993; nearly 25 years on, his eye for characters at once living in their own specific dramas and weighed down by events and deeds, has always been grounded in the real world by cultural reference or shared experience. His debut novel, last year’s Wolf in White Van
, succeeded both commercially and critically via another, unique exploration of that theme; Beat the Champ
no less so as a song cycle of celebration, extremity, conclusions. All that and, as concluding performances of band standards like “This Year,” “See America Right,” and “No Children,” the Mountain Goats are just catchy as all hell.
“(stage whispered to a noisy group of people at the bar during a quieter piano part) Shut the fuck up!”
The sheer joy from the crowd when Darnielle said that couldn’t be described. But why do those noisy people always turn up at a show with quieter moments, and why don’t they go away?
: Loud barflys aside, a lot of friendly, intense fans. The kind of people who apologize when trying to sneak up close to the stage and who ask if you can hold their spot for them while they use the bathroom, and you don’t mind.
Best random moment
: The guy passing out homemade Mountain Goats buttons because why not? (I went for one with a luchador mask and “Now your ashes are scattered on the wind,” a line from Beat the Champ
’s “The Ballad of Chavo Guerrero.”)
Best slogan at the merch table
: “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats.” (Probably more true than might be thought.)
Most dapper fellow on stage
: Peter Hughes, easy. All down to the tie.
Best John Darnielle one-liner, again referring to the jabberers at the back towards the end of the show, smilingly delivered
: "To the people that won't shut up...I hope nobody comes to your funeral...except me...in the nude."