Words by Peter Quinton
During a brief between-song intermission, The Mountain Goats bassist Peter Hughes passingly mentioned to John Darnielle, “Could you imagine if we were sitting,” to which the legendary singer/songwriter replied, without missing a beat, “It would not be good.” For a man who’s known for his witty and sometimes rambling stage banter, this plain spoken response was potentially the most truthful statement made all night. Where most folk artists prefer to sit for assured technical efficiency, Darnielle & Co. prefer to stand up and electrify audiences by letting their simply constructed yet powerful songs possess them on stage, and the group’s recent performance in Hoboken was no exception to this.
The sold out show at Hoboken’s legendary (and sadly closing) rock venue Maxwell’s was the third show in a string of tour dates announced by the band in early April. What sets this tour apart, however, is that it consists solely of Darnielle and Hughes, the classic touring lineup responsible for some of The Goats most cherished albums, including Tallahassee (2004) and The Sunset Tree (2007). It seems odd that a show supported by two lone performers could be so engaging, but the constant energy, excitement, and emotion traded between the duo and the crowd in the tightly packed spaces of Maxwell’s made for an incredibly intimate and exciting experience.
Before The Mountain Goats took the stage, however, the audience was treated with a performance from longstanding indie rock/freak folk act The Baptist Generals (who introduced themselves by saying, “Hi, we’re The Lumineers. We play ‘clappy’ songs”). Even before the group began playing their strange-yet-delightful 45 minute set, I knew I was in for something unique as I watched a large, bearded man with dreadlocks tune a guitarrón mexicano (a large acoustic based used in mariachi bands) and a drummer set up a single bass drum with a synth pad placed above it. Thankfully, the rest of their set did not to disappoint.
The bands set largely consisted of material off their new album Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, their first in ten years, and showcased a surprising amount of diversity in their sound, from straightforward folk-rock songs (“Dog Bites You”) to crescendo-ing epics, to rather surreal, noisy jams (The intro to “Floating,” in particular). Particularly impressive, however, was singer Chris Flemmons, whose weary-yet-powerful voice stood out even over the most complex arrangements, transforming from lone, weathered drifter to wide-eyed mystic depending on the track. During one of their last songs, the band suffered a slight technical malfunction and had to restart midway through. Instead of anger and frustration, however, the crowd reacted with howls of applause. Clearly, The Baptist Generals won the crowds affection ten-fold.
But this was nothing compared to the way the crowd roared as The Mountain Goats took the stage, who arrived sharply dressed to a blaring, upbeat funk soundtrack. From then on, the crowd was fully charged and ready to sing along and participate to a marathon of classic Mountain Goats songs, including tracks that are popular staples from more recent albums and others that haven’t been played in years (Darnielle referred to it as a “parade of songs that are old enough to vote”). Regardless, the duo performed each track with equal amounts of passion and vitriol.
This is all the more impressive considering the duo were limited to little more than an old, $80 acoustic guitar (which Darnielle admitted to a fan on stage) and a bass. But this stripped down approach, which the group utilized for many years, brought out the best in the group’s material from across the spectrum. Though this approach was a no-brainer for the group’s older songs, which were mostly lo-fi acoustic tracks in the first place, it was interesting to see how it added such raw power to their newer material. For instance, “Diaz Brothers,” a peppy, well-produced standout from their 2012 album Transcendental Youth, felt especially confrontational and intense when banged out by Darnielle on his acoustic guitar. Darnielle did happen to switch to keyboard halfway through the set to play some of the groups softer tracks (including “Tallahassee,” a fan favorite that was never meant to be one), and while this did slow down the momentum of the show a bit, it was still great to sing along to these more tender songs.
The show also showed me just how much material The Mountain Goats have to choose from when playing a show, and how even the biggest of Mountain Goats fans (and trust me, there are some SERIOUS fans out there) may hear a song their not familiar with. There were certainly some classics played, like Sunset Tree ballad “Love, Love, Love” and Tallahassee standout “No Children” (a.k.a. the only song to make a failing anthem sound anthemic), but it was really the songs I didn’t know that stuck with me. I was never aware of “Song for Mark and Joel,” a track from an obscure EP from 1996, before the show, but after hearing Darnielle passionately belt the song during their set, it became an instant favorite.
But what it all really comes down to is Darnielle himself, who is most responsible for bringing his songs and lyrics to life on stage with his eccentric, lively performance. Watching Darnielle on stage is a unique experience for a folk show, as his restless movement and contorted facial gestures, often done when trying to push his nasally voice past its limit, gave the group’s songs and performance something of a punk feel. He was even completely engaging when he wasn’t performing, as his witty comments and anecdotes on topics like the red tape on his guitar, his experiences with record labels early in his career, making obvious code names for his songs, and an old Paul Stanley bootleg, made rambling stage banter feel like an essential part of the show, and certainly made the experience all the more intimate.
I should add that the show had possibly the greatest lead-in to an encore I’ve ever seen. Since Maxwell’s has no backstage (or any way to get off the stage other than through the crowd), the duo were stuck on stage after finishing their “last” song, “No Children,” looking back at the crowd dumfounded and said “Oh my god, they’re still here?” as the crowd cheered for more. The Goats then launched into a number of fan favorites, including “Alpha Omega,” “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” and “See America Right.”
On my way out of the venue, charged by the event and even still wishing for more, I stopped by the merch booth and spent what little money I had on a sticker that reads “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats.” Of course this is an exaggeration, and if anything, this show made me realize I have some catching up to do regarding their older material. But as I left a night of frenzied folk songs and passionate sing-alongs from one of the most celebrated acts in the indie music world behind, I was definitely able to see how someone could live exclusively off of The Mountain Goats.
TheWaster.com | No Children