North Carolina’s poetic indie-rock outfit The Mountain Goats makes music like bittersweet breakup letters. Like heartache put to 4/4 time.
I love this band and have only seen them once before at Sasquatch 2010. They were great, but admittedly, they’re not a band you can appreciate at a big music festival. Their show at The Biltmore Cabaret on June 17, 2011 was far more intimate, and way more memorable.
And John Darnielle is a great frontman — one of the best I’ve seen, in fact.
He is so intelligent, well spoken, gracious… and funny! He chatted with the audience between every song, speaking about his artistic influences, his personal life, anecdotes from the band and current events. His trademark, witty musings were simultaneously dark and light-hearted — just like his music — and my three friends who were not familiar with the band had no trouble forging a connection.
Darnielle even apologized about the riots that happened in our city two nights before, eloquently lamenting the negative impact of such a pointless event. Having been there for the start of the riots, I was surprised at how emotional I felt as my friend and I fled the downtown core. Everyone we met during the exodus was surprised and angry; opinions were infinite; any feelings of civic pride were dashed.
Though it was sad for me to realize the bands I love will probably talk about the riots before gigs in VanCity for a while to come, it was really nice to belong to a loving, respectful crowd on this night. Truly, this is the Vancouver I am proud to be a part of.
The Mountain Goats played an energetic hour-and-a-half-long set, switching effortlessly between crooning love songs, bitter ballads and upbeat indie dance tracks. Darnielle, with Jon Wurster on drums, Peter Hughes on bass, and touring keyboardist Yuvol Semo, had no shortage of energy as they all wailed on their instruments in the most sincere fashion. This band is known for their sincerity, and their stage presence confirmed it as they all looked like geeky college professors breaking loose from grading papers.
Speaking of stage presence, Darnielle’s is excellent. He is truly a seasoned performer. He had no trouble interacting with the crowd, and at one point pressed his face against the steel enclosure along the side of the stage and crooned through it. After that, he hung himself off the side of the stage and caressed people’s faces as he leaned in for a few intimate moments with fans.
Oh, and he wasn’t wearing any shoes.
Did I mention I love this band?!
Anyway, given that it was an early show with a 10:30 pm curfew, The Mountain Goats played a rich set that included 18 songs (I was too busy swaying to count — thank you Setlist.fm). They started with“Liza Forever Minnelli,” a new, slower track, and worked on building an infectious energy that carried us through “Broom People,” “Damn These Vampires,” and “This Year.” And the energy didn’t peak for a moment. From this secretly emo heart, I was particularly excited to hear “Broom People.” The songwriting makes me feel mushy every time:
’36 Hudson in the garage
All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room.
Dishes in the kitchen sink
New straw for the old broom.
Friends who don’t have a clue
Well meaning teachers
But down in your arms, in your arms
I am a wild creature.
Floor two foot high with newspapers
White carpet thick with cat hair
Half eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer
Fresh fuel for the sodium flares
I write down good reasons to freeze to death
In my spiral-ring notebook
But in the long tresses of your hair
I am a babbling brook
God I love those lyrics! It was very cathartic live.
After this, it was just Darnielle, mic and guitar. When the bare-bones love song “It Froze Me” began, the crowd fell silent, entranced by his wavery vocals and expressive guitar plucking. This song goes all the way back to ’96, and it was amazing to hear Darnielle’s poetry come alive much like it would have on his early demos. Watching him perform this song felt like experiencing a first kiss with someone you really like: soft, electric and infinitely uplifting. I’m a big fan of this band, but I’d never heard this song before and the title described my reaction exactly.
What a beautiful song, and such a pleasure to experience live:
Later in the set, the band played a special song only performed live called “You Were Cool.” Darnielle told the crowd he first performed it in Victoria, B.C., and that it was “really special” to be able to play it for a Vancouver audience. Aw!
To close the set before the encore, the band played the ever-popular “This Year,” which had everybody shouting out:
“I am gonna make it, through this year, if it kills me.”
In a city that is still reverberating from the deep wounds of senseless, violent rioting over nothing, where young people are wearing the blame and everyone is searching their souls to find a way to understand, this felt very apropos.
When the first few chords of “No Children” rang out and I shrieked with glee. This is one of my absolute favourite songs EVER! I quickly discovered I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm: nearly everyone around me was shouting or muttering along with every word, which was awesome, because for this band the words are many.
The words are what it’s all about:
I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow
I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises
We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over
And I hope you blink before I do
Yeah I hope I never get sober
And I hope when you think of me years down the line
You can’t find one good thing to say
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You’d stay the hell out of my way
I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand
And I hope you die
I hope we both die
All in all, it was the ideal end to a very un-ideal week in Vancouver. I’m so glad I was there. While falling asleep that night, I thought about how The Mountain Goats are the perfect symbol for how to behave with dignity in the face of negative emotions.
Their music illustrates how anger, when met with intelligence, can inspire beauty.
All of Darnielle’s lyrics are poetry. I could spend hours flipping through the band’s massive catalogue of tracks.
Buy music by The Mountain Goats on iTunes and check out the setlist from the Biltmore show.
Also, check out this sweet poster I bought!
Top photo courtesy of Brooklynvegan.com. Second photo courtesy of Stereogum.com.