The Mountain Goats, Middle East, September 26, 2006
I discovered John Darnielle in college as I migrated away from an eighties punk music phase and towards sparer, more singer-songwritery stuff. I'd downloaded "Cubs in Five" from the Mountain Goats’s Nine Black Poppies album onto my new iPod. The sound quality was primitive: a skip in the tape in the beginning, a single violently-strummed junkyard guitar, Darnielle's flat, cutting vocals. I searched Napster for a better recording of the song; no such thing existed. Darnielle had purposely produced this song with the cheapest of all technologies.
And I was okay with that. More than okay, actually. The punk I’d been listening to had the same no-frills, raw-to-the-bone musical approach. Darnielle's delivery was, on the surface, at odds with bands like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, and early Replacements. But there was something about the Mountain Goats that always felt punk rock to me. His was a quiet riot, but a riot nonetheless.
Darnielle's militantly lo-fi approach has waned in recent years. Back when I first came across the Mountain Goats, he had already begun putting together proper studio albums. And with his last two albums, The Sunset Tree (4AD) and the most recent Get Lonely (4AD), Darnielle has expanded his musical repertoire to include the occasional horn, organ, and cello.
That’s not to say that he'll be fronting the Pops anytime soon. Last night, September 26, at the Middle East downstairs, he brought with him only his longtime collaborator, bassist Peter Hughes. The two began with Get Lonely's opener "Wild Sage," which was missing the keys, but sounded fantastic regardless. The bespectacled Darnielle is an animated, often mesmerizing performer. In the tradition of Weird War's Ian Svenonius -- another nerd god -- he shakes out his hands and makes funny faces, delighting us with the occasional shitty dance move.
The kids were rapt during the hushed numbers, careful not to miss, or worse, sully their favorite bit. "He's my Bob Dylan," one guy declared. Another called out "You're the messiah!" An exaggeration, of course. Darnielle is a lot of things, but Dylan? Come on folks. One thing he's got on the old kook, judging by the number of sing-alongs last night, is his ability to enunciate his lines. In wordy numbers too, like "Dance Music." All the crowd participation brought to mind the San Francisco audience that sang in full the lyrics to "No Children" for an under-the-weather Darnielle in June. I wondered if he would allow us to do the same. He didn't. What he did do was reward us with a second encore of the old favorite "Going To Georgia."
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