All words: Andy Johnson
All photos: Farrah Skeiky
Throughout the sold-out performance at the 9:30 Club, John Darnielle kept mentioning his anxiety. For the first time in several years, he and longtime bassist Peter Hughes were performing under the Mountain Goats name as a duo, downsizing drummer Jon Wurster for this tour. Originally, the show was billed as a seated concert for both the band and the audience. Due to popular demand, the chairs were removed and more tickets were released, almost doubling the show’s attendance. Halfway through the set, Darnielle said he told the promoter he still wished to play the show seated, only to be rebuffed. According to Darnielle, “I didn’t used to be nervous, but there didn’t used to be 1200 people at our show.”
Before the Mountain Goats reached “the absolute upper echelon of global media saturation,” to use a phrase from the tour announcement, Darnielle began cultivating a steady and zealous fan base through a never-ending stream of lo-fi records, singles, splits, and, of course, cassettes. Signing to prominent indie labels 4AD and later Merge in the 2000s further elevated his career while allowing him to maintain a prolific profile: he’s released eight full-length records in the past decade. To put things into a quantitative perspective, a torrent containing the group’s entire discography swells at over 500 songs. I consider myself a big fan, but I can only vouch familiarity with about a hundred.
What’s more is that many of the 500+ songs sound nearly identical. After all, a musician can only do so much with an acoustic guitar and a discount boom box. But what makes the Mountain Goats unique are Darnielle’s captivating lyrics about heartbreaks both small and massive. His piercing words are backed by a casual, shaggy-haired everyman who has survived a childhood of domestic abuse and nearly two decades on the road, including a particularly draining tour of Europe in the ‘90s. Furthermore, the connection between the group and their fans is reinforced due to Darnielle’s availability. He has been known to personally respond to fan mail, moderates the official Mountain Goats message board, and if he’s in a good mood, he may even respond to an appreciative Tweet from a fan. (John, if you read this, please forgive the torrent.)
The Mountain Goats trio toured the world last year for Transcendental Youth, their 14th studio album. As one would expect, the group’s performances drew heavily from their new album, but included enough deep cuts to satisfy the die-hards. (Then again, I’ve yet to meet a “casual” Mountain Goats fan.) Free from the obligations to sell units of a new release, this tour was designed in mind of playing rarities and stripped-down renditions of their 4AD/Merge material. All things considered, I guess it makes sense Darnielle would be flustered prior to performing a b-side that had never, ever been heard before on the first night of the tour without Wurster, their “security blanket.” His anxiety was for naught, as this was another typically incredible concert from a typically incredible band.
Opening for the band were The Baptist Generals, an indie folk group hailing from Denton, Texas, a town that was well known by everyone in attendance. The acoustic trio, a longtime favorite of Darnielle (We learned they’re his second favorite band, bested by Enon), recently released their first studio album in a decade, and announced they were playing it all the way through. Singer/guitarist Chris Flemmon’s rough voice sounded like a cross between Tom Waits and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, but what really entertained was the group’s bravado.
Having driven 20+ hours to DC, they were clearly primed for a month on the road with old friends. They were also a bit drunk. Flemmon regaled the audience about past tours with Darnielle and implored the audience to “spend your money at the bar, but to have enough left over to buy our merchandise.” Flemmon also enjoyed screwing with the ASL interpreter parked stage left by asking her to sign “Clitorpus Christi,” one of the numbers off Jackleg Devotional to the Heart. (We learned that the ASL sign for clitoris is exactly what you’d expect.) Darnielle himself even came out to play keyboard for a song to the crowd’s delight. I doubt many in attendance knew who The Baptist Generals were before tonight, but if they had JD’s approval, that was enough.
If could pigeonhole what a Mountain Goat fan looked like, he or she would be Caucasian, literate, and more than likely has a Vitamin-D deficiency. They’re also quite pushy, because after the Baptist Generals ended, many flocked to be close to the stage to be near John & Peter. I was also surprised by how many couples were sloppily making out at this show, given the band’s grim lyrics.
At about 9:30, the two men came out in suits, although only Hughes chose to wear a tie. Of the many songs in their discography, they chose to open the tour with “Pure Gold,” the first track off the 18-year-old Songs About Fire 7-inch. This was followed up with “The Diaz Brothers,” one of the hits off their most recent album. After just two songs, they made it known that on this night, everything in their canon was on the table.
Darnielle, perhaps recalling the joke made by Flemmon, bet the ASL interpreter that this would be the only time she’d have to sign the phrase “Alpha Rats Nest.” This was followed by another rarity, “Song For Mark And Joel” off one of their earliest EPs, Beautiful Rat Sunset, and “1 Samuel 15:23,” which Darnielle remarked was one of his favorite songs. The duo then played “Alpha Chum Gatherer,” a lost outtake from Tallahassee, for the very first time in their history. I can imagine being privy to the debut performance of an extremely rare b-side would be like winning the jackpot for a Mountain Goats superfan.
The 100-minute performance was consistently exemplary, as Darnielle continued to banter with the crowd, providing insights about many of the more obscure songs while also indulging the audience with familiar tunes like personal favorite “Jenny,” a calming version of “Tallahassee” featuring Darnielle on piano, and “Dance Music,” which ironically led to some of the worst dancing I’ve seen at a show. I found most fans to be incredibly polite (when not pushing past you), and I witnessed several strangers exchange names, shake hands, and discuss bootlegs. Nevertheless, earnestness does not correlate with hips moving in rhythm. The set-closing “No Children” was the evening’s apex, bringing the bespectacled audiences to hysterics as we hollered, “I am drowning / There is no sign of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand.” Unsurprisingly, everyone quit making out for that one.
There were, however, a few miscues in an otherwise enjoyable evening. Darnielle had a few technical flubs here and there, most likely the result of playing songs that have been gathering dust. Some of the more challenging songs, such as the rousing “Sax Rohmer #1,” were omitted because of lyrics and the sparse restrictions placed on the duo. For the life of me, I still am not a fan of “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” believing it dragged on far too long. Regardless, any criticism of the band’s first night on tour is outweighed by their stories, allowing us to enjoy their off-the-cuff authenticity before they become refined patter for the Hoboken and South Burlington and West Columbia audiences.
When they came back on stage, Darnielle boldly told the audience they never write down their encores, a commendable feat that I feel more bands should adhere to. After a solid rendition of “Cheshire County,” John & Peter then told the longest story I’ve heard at a show in my life—and I’ve seen some great Billy Corgan rants. The two reminisced on a disastrous European tour that ended with the men playing before zero people in a 400-year-old German banquet hall. If you want to find out the meaning of the TUTTLINGEN WARRIORS TOUR, you’ll just have to find out for yourself because I dare not spoil the punchline.
The final song of the night was another fan favorite, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” a story about Cyrus, Jeff, and their dream of one day playing before sold-out crowds. When you end the evening with 1200 of your disciples quite literally hailing Satan, methinks John Darnielle was no longer feeling uptight.