I originally got hooked on the music of the Mountain Goats by listening to the first four tracks of the album “We Shall All Be Healed,” late one February night three years ago. The riffage of these low-tech rock songs reminded me of the Velvet Underground songs I grew up with, and formed memorable frames for the mysterious lyrics of John Darnielle — evocative, in songs like “Palmcorder Yajna” and “Letter From Belgium,” of sacred rituals, ancient science fiction plots, and David Lynch movies. (It was only later that I figured out that the whole album is a kind of memorial to doomed meth addicts Darnielle had hung with in his youth.)
As I made my way through the Goats’ voluminous back catalog I came to understand that these full-band song arrangements were the exception to Darnielle’s rule of recording mostly with an acoustic guitar, solo into a boombox mike — and touring, most of the time, as a duo, with bassist Peter Hughes.
All of which is by way of preface to a report from the last two evenings that I spent, enraptured, at the Independent (the venue I knew formerly as the Kennel Club), watching the Mountain Goats metamorphose into a rocking band. Yes, friends, the Mountain Goats are now a power trio, with a drummer joining Hughes and Darnielle and the latter trading in his acoustic for a natural-wood Telecaster after the first few songs of the set.
How did it sound? Wonderful. The last time Darnielle swung through San Francisco he gave a subdued show at the Bottom of the Hill; beset, apparently, by the flu, his set leaned heavily on the hushed falsetto of so many of the tunes on his most recent album, “Get Lonely.” (His voice was so shot he essentially turned over the vocal chores on “No Children” to the sing-along crowd — an event preserved in MP3 and celebrated in the blogosphere as an instance of band/audience bonding.) This week, those songs remained part of his set, but they have assumed their rightful place as the slow songs, serving as mood- and pace-changers rather than centerpieces.
The new full-band mode gave the Goats a chance to rearrange much of their catalog. Songs like “Jaipur,” “The Pigs That Ran…”, “The House that Dripped Blood,” “Quito,” “Lions Teeth,” and “See America Right” all emerged with extra-hard edges and careening speeds. Darnielle performed even more unexpected transformations on “Peacocks,” from Tallahassee (the quiet 6 a.m. song got an infusion of mid-tempo energy); and on “Dance Music,” which traded in some of its bop for some bittersweetness; and on “Dilaudid,” a desperate love song given a tougher bite.
Darnielle is in full-throated form again, moving nimbly from a feather-light whisper to a piercing pleasing bray, never losing grip of the syllables that define each moment of each song as unique. As he bangs away on his electric guitar, jaw dropped open an inch or two to release a goofy “I still can’t believe I’m doing this!” smile, he looks like he has moved through all the pain in his songs, found his own little corner of nirvana and invited us in. (Here’s some good descriptive writing about his performance style.)
John Vanderslice joined the band for the conclusion of both shows, adding to the fun and layering “Palmcorder Yajna,” “Half Dead” and “This Year” with some extra exquisite crunch. Then the young women of Pony Up, the warmup act, trotted out to sing backup on Darnielle’s devotedly straight-faced cover of Thin Lizzy’s ode to vernal rebirth, “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
It’s a great time to see the Mountain Goats. Go if you can. They’re playing again tonight at the Bottom of the Hill. Full tour schedule here.
[tags]mountain goats, john darnielle[/tags]
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