The Mountain Goats
By Lindsay Zoladz | 18 April 2011
I have come to understand that there are two types of people who go to Mountain Goats shows. One is a group of otherwise mild-mannered people who go for the trusty and glorious pleasure of yelling “Hail Satan!” and “I hope you die / I hope we all die” in a room full of strangers during the band’s fan-favorite-heavy encores. The other group is full of jumpy, anxious weirdos who often have some sort of twitchy thing going on somewhere behind their eyes that bespeaks a total and vaguely frightening devotion to living and dying with this band.
Here is a handy litmus test for figuring out which group you belong to: upon seeing a reliably phenomenal DC show early in the Mountain Goats’ current tour during which you had a slight headcold and thus due to a sinus pressure buildup in your left ear you decided you were in a state not fit to fully appreciate just how epic that totally epic full-band arrangement of “Family Happiness” was, would you begin planning the very next day a visit to your parents’ house based solely upon the weekend when the Mountain Goats tour would be arriving in the metropolitan area closest to where they live, assuming that your ears would be back to their optimal music-appreciating state by then and thus ready for whatever Coronoer’s Gambit (2000) gem John Darnielle could possibly throw in their direction, all the while vaguely remembering that time years ago when you played “Alphabetizing” in your mom’s car and she actually laughed at you and said, “This is that band you’re always driving long distances to go see? Really?” and figuring that it’s best for everyone involved if you tell your parents “you just thought this would be a nice weekend for a visit”?—check yes or no. Since I have reviewed John Darnielle’s music for CMG before, I will honor the spirit of Music Critic Objectivity and not reveal my answer to the above question, so let me instead just say if you’re reading this, Mom and Dad, thank you for a delightful weekend.
Friday’s show at the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia was the final stop on the tour supporting the Mountain Goats’ exquisite new album, All Eternals Deck. Among the new songs, the record’s highlights—the three-song opening stretch that includes “Damn These Vampires,” “Birth of Serpents,” and “Estate Sale Sign” — shone brightest live, along with “Outer Scorpion Squadron,” a haunting, minimalist ballad made of piano and Leonard Cohen panache. Keyboardist Yuval Semo proved a valuable new addition to the touring band, adding an elegant oomph to the band’s sound and some inspired vocals to maybe the best version of “This Year” I’ve ever seen live. “This Year” in particular grows each time the band plays it; in its current incarnation it is the sort of song during which the opening band (which, for this tour has been rollicking and refreshingly unpretentious folk dudes Megafaun) comes back out on stage wearing cool sunglasses and playing superfluous percussion instruments. Which means that it is well on its way to becoming indie rock’s equivalent of The Song that Bruce Springsteen Would Play at a Disaster Benefit, and I will cherish the day I finally see it grow to that size.
“Family Happiness” wasn’t the only lo-fi classic that benefited from a beefed up live arrangement. Darnielle and company also treated the crowd to Full Force Galseburg’s (1997) “Minnesota” and All Hail West Texas (2002) cut “Jeff Davis County Blues,” one of music’s most precise lyrical descriptions of the freedom and boredom of traveling alone (“Old issues of Sunset magazine to read / Sleep for twelve hours / Dream about home”). As I wrote here last time I saw the Mountain Goats live, there’s a certain poetic justice to the fact that John Darnielle—for whom lo-fi home recording was never a trendy novelty but rather a practical means of committing an overflow of ideas to tape—finally has the resources and the audience to give these old songs new, richly textured life. A lone guy with a guitar seething “You can arm me to the teeth / You can’t make me go to war” into a Panasonic RX-FT500 boom box is one thing; that same guy seething it between a thunderous backing band and to an audience of outstretched hands is another. But both of these things are equally awesome, and, I can tell you now, best experienced in optimal ear health.