20 Sep 2016: Jefferson Theater Charlottesville, VA
John Darnielle missed his chance to come out in costume with a full-fanfare professional wrestling entrance. With the rest of the Mountain Goats on stage and the crowd getting worked up, Darnielle could have arrived in mask and cape, ready for a fight. Instead, he walked out in official young pastor uniform of button-down shirt with sports jacket and jeans. Although 2015’s Beat the Champ ostensibly centered on pro wrestling, Darnielle’s actual attire would prove to be more suitable for the concert, which dealt more with the ramifications of battles fought in other arenas.
If the pastor (or even prophet) view of Darnielle works, it does so even when he opens a concert with a song like “Supergenesis”, a track written from the point of view of the serpent from the Garden of Eden. The song, even more in concert, hinges on its resistance and its hope for restoration, for us all to “get up from the ground”. That sort of perseverance and survival would guide much of the rest of the evening.
For a band that, in various incarnations, has produced a steady stream of quality albums for 25 years, it isn’t surprising that there would be a wealth of material to pick from to create a strong live experience. What was less expected was that the focus of these songs—drawn slightly more from the two most recent albums but without feeling like a new-release promo show—would cause the evening to cohere into a form of revivalist intention. The revival wouldn’t come with tents and hymns, but with the urging for resistance against all the awful things.
Darnielle performs like someone who’s been through the wringers and come out not necessarily worse for wear, and maybe only partially scathed. When he sings, it’s clear that every word matters, but there’s never the need to remind you how much it matters. There’s a directness that comes through; your mentor John genuinely wants you not to die, no matter how bad it gets, and he’s seen how bad it gets. But all this is offset by how much fun the band (currently bassist Peter Hughes, multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, and drummer Jon Wurster) is having. The group exchanges smiles and off-mic comments. When Darnielle initiates what seems like an impromptu cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”, everyone looks pleased to join in.
The joy of playing ties into, rather than undercuts, the seriousness of much of the music (even in its comic moments). Around all the songs focused on things going wrong is the overpowering desire to come back from those things. “Up the Wolves” takes on a more universal message. What that message is remains ambiguous (the revenge fantasy isn’t the ultimate goal), but it’s about surviving. The “party” of the chorus becomes almost eschatalogical in the concert setting.
The pending release becomes even more explicit with “This Year” (also from The Sunset Tree album). The crowd responds to the Passover climax with rhythmic hops and upraised fists. Sometimes this hopeful relief means just getting through a bad moment, and sometimes it’s about two hours of you and your several hundred closest friends telling each other that you can make it.
Closing in on 50, Darnielle’s age and experience add weight to his message. When he promises you’ll be okay, it’s not one he can keep, but it comes from the other side of whatever tunnel it is you’re stuck in. As a performer, Darnielle is reminiscent of Craig Finn, but where Finn has fun with his self-awareness of being in rock star mode, Darnielle seems to come through that, collapsing the space between his role as person, artist, and narrator. The result is the directness of the experience, an unmediated call to press on.
The show ends fittingly with “Spent Gladiator 2”. Darnielle’s lyrics sum it up: “Just stay alive / Stay forever alive”. It’s an impossible request, but the whole show has been about transcending the dirt and the dust, of resurrecting faith outside of rotten churches, of finding God, of finding another broken friend to hold to, of rising up, a revivification that lasts, regardless of vampires and abuse and addiction. “Stay forever alive”, and the lights come on and we walk outside.
// Notes from the Road
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