Halloween is the perfect holiday for fans of Mountain Goats. John Darnielle’s songs are full of life and death, of people hiding their true selves and battling demons, wrestling with darkness and light. Chicago was out in full Halloween dress this Saturday. It felt appropriate heading to the Goats’ show through a sea of costumed people and I amused myself seeing them as Darnielle characters. My game was trying to figure out who was disguising their true self and who was revealing it.
The crowd at Mountain Goats shows are a unique and reverent bunch. In a twist that the religiously-influenced songwriter must surely enjoy on some level, his concerts often resemble a group of congregants gathering to collect wisdom and take communion from their prophet. That kind of musical transubstantiation is a tall order, but Darnielle’s intensity and open-heartedness on stage helps him turn words and chords into sustenance.
“Your band has too many people in it by at least five” someone wisecracked as Matthew E. White and his backing musicians, all nine of them, took the stage. His assessment was quickly proven wrong however, as Sweet led his unit through a solid, uplifting set of songs from their unfortunately-titled, but excellent debut album, Big Inner. The set mixed soul and gospel with sixties rock arrangements and intimate, Newmanesque songwriting. White also lent both arrangements and horns to Transcendental Youth, so having him open felt like an extended-family affair. The band built energy slowly built slowly until Darnielle joined them onstage for the closer. This descended happily into spectacularly cathartic jam session - the first of several for the night.
It’s no secret that the man behind the Mountain Goats has had mixed feelings about his band’s recent success and increased profile. This night however, there was no trace of uneasiness as he seemed to bask in the glow of a tour successfully completed. He was as relaxed and engaging as I’ve ever seen him, giving backstories to songs, complimenting the audience and even asking the crowd’s help in an ongoing Twitter gag between him and Patton Oswalt. Mountain Goats songs are already intensely personal (even though they are mostly fictional), so having their writer open up so easily onstage felt almost like a affirmation of his work – of course he pours his heart out, don’t you see?
The set was full of fan favorites from the 4AD era, including a hefty dose of songs from All Hail West Texas and his latter-day masterpiece The Sunset Tree. Most tunes took on at least slightly new arrangements with Darnielle emphasizing different words or adding new instruments, but this never stopped the crowd from murmuring along. During the solo portion of the set, he dedicated two songs to the memory of deceased friends, including the quietly stunning “Steal Smoked Fish” from Transcendental Youth‘s bonus EP.
As always, Darnielle’s not-so-secret-weapon were the Mountain Goats themselves, who just keep getting stronger as a band. Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster are an ace rhythm section, capable of bashing it out one minute and sounding downright orchestral the next. Darnielle even announced at one point that “Peter has indicated that he feels like slinking and slink he shall” before launching into a stellar version “Lakeside View Apartments”. The band proved that the songs off the new record (the band’s strongest since The Sunset Tree) can hold their own next to classics like “Jenny”, “Up With The Wolves”, or “The Mess Inside”. White’s horn section even came out for the final few songs, ensuring that “Cry For Judas” lost none of its punch onstage. Closing his main set with “This Year”, Darnielle invited White’s bandmates onstage, all of whom obliged by lending horns, noisemakers, and handclaps to the band’s stomp. The audience, which had been singing along quietly all night, let loose with the full throats, at times drowning out Darnielle. It was the kind of sing-along that feels so communal, it sends a giddy chill up your spine.
After returning to the stage to play “Transcendental Youth”, Darnielle was coaxed happily back out again for a second encore. He started by recalling a story he’d shared earlier in the evening detailing how the headphones mentioned in “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod?” ended up in the hands of comic book illustrator Matt Fraction. He shared that Fraction recently created two characters, Cyrus and Jeff, based on a Mountain Goats song. As he talked about his desire to share the joy and amazement of that news with his younger self, it was impossible not be affected by sincerity of Darnielle’s joy. This speech lead directly into a hard-charging, piano-driven version of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton”. It was one last sing-along and the crowd couldn’t have been happier, chanting words of defiance and transcendence in the face of crushing defeat. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate catharsis than a group of strangers getting together at Halloween to scream “Hail Satan, tonight!”
“Feast when you can / And dream when there’s nothing to feast on,” Darnielle sang at one point. Tonight, as Chicago danced behind face paint and masks, the Mountain Goats gathered together dreamers to share a feast.
Love, Love, Love
Up With The Wolves
Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1
The Mess Inside
Source Decay (Solo)
Steal Smoked Fish (Solo)
Shadow Song (Solo)
Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace (Solo)
Lakeside View Apartments
In Memory Of Satan
Cry For Judas
First Few Desperate Hours
Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod?
Spent Gladiator 2
The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton