THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
@ the Factory Theatre
9 April (live review)
The Factory is a great old bandroom. Ramshackle and tucked away in an industrial neighbourhood in Marrickville where nobody can complain about the noise, it’s big and its sparse. It’s pretty much four walls and a bar, but the acoustics are great and wherever you are you have a clear view of the stage.
Opening the show tonight are a pair of diminutive folksters with matching pixie cuts calling themselves Oh Pep! one squeezing pretty sounds out of a full bodied six string the other switching between a violin and a beautifully plucked mandolin. The guitarist has an enormous, emotionally stacked voice reminiscent of someone like Melissa Ferrick. Similar to much of Ferrick’s work, the songs seem like pretty standard folk fodder but reveal themselves to be somewhat more layered than that as they progress.
Tonight, however, belongs to those darlings of the indie scene, the Mountain Goats. The crowd is a little older, reflecting that once you get past the impossibly pleasing melodies of the songs, there is an exploration of the human condition too complex for most twenty-somethings. It’s as if you have to have experienced proper grown up misery to really appreciate the depth of the lyrical content.
Mountain Goat mastermind John Darnielle appears rumpled and tousled, more like an English Literature lecturer than a rock star. Ironically, as this that thought passes through my head Darnielle rambles through a long winded tale about how Troilus and Cressida relates to WWE wrestling. Darnielle is undoubtedly one of the truly great songwriters of his generation. His understanding of human frailty and his empathetic treatment of even the most unlikeable characters sets him apart. His ability to take those sentiments and weave them over the top of music that somehow induces a genuinely visceral happiness is extraordinary. It’s not simply pop music done to the standard formula, catchy and sub-consciously (or perhaps subliminally) appealing. Its much deeper than that. It’s as if Darnielle knows something about the sound of pure joy nobody else has uncovered yet. That knowledge allows him the freedom to explore the banal, the bizarre and the downright miserable in such a way as to make his characters sympathetic. A perfect example is ‘Harlem Roulette’ a song about Frankie Lymon’s heroin overdose. Darnielle croons “the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again”. Its heartbreaking but wonderfully so. Another treat is ‘the Diaz Brothers’ a song about characters from De Palma’s Scarface, so minor that they are mentioned only in passing and in fact never even appear in the film. Throughout the track Darnielle pleads for their mercy.
In essence Darnielle is the Mountain Goats and the Mountain Goats are him, but for at least the last few albums his vision has been lovingly rendered by a full band that includes Jon Wurster on drums. Wurster shares label space with the Mountain Goats as one quarter of that other indie giant, Superchunk. Matt Douglas provides extra depth on keys and strings and especially sax, an instrument, thanks to the ubiquitous solos of the 80s, that’s very difficult to utilise outside the realm of jazz unless you’re Bruce Springsteen. Long-time Darnielle collaborator Peter Hughes is typically understated on bass, but no less vital to the sound.
The band treat the audience to a couple of tracks off new album Goths, which in true Mountain Goats style seem to poke gentle fun at goths as a collective whilst empathising, even identifying, with the outsider status of goths as individuals. It is telling that the crowd sing along euphorically to new number ‘We do it Different on the West Coast’ half way through hearing it for the first time. Such is the beauty of every Darnielle melody. They also play treasured classics like “Up the Wolves”, a song about the Romulus and Remus from Roman mythology and “This Year” to a delighted audience.
It is difficult to describe the relationship Darnielle’s audience has with his work. Despite the band’s wider success they still feel like a private discovery, as if the songs were written just for you and you somehow stumbled upon them. And, if you get it, if it speaks to you, there is a richness to the storytelling that reveals itself only after multiple listens, and even then not completely. The effect is that the records always have some new gift to bestow; regardless of how many times you’ve heard them they continue to give. They are comfortable and familiar, but somehow perennially unknowable.
The Mountain Goats show at the Factory will prove to be one of the performances of the year. It may only be April but outpleasing Darnielle’s luminescent humanity will be a difficult feat. If I could I would follow them all over the world just to hear those songs and be in the rooms where they’re lived and loved.
Check out Josh Pike’s gallery of this show HERE