Brasky.org officials found themselves in a unique spot this week. Brasky is offering Tampa denizens an exciting PREVIEW of a well-hyped upcoming show… The Mountain Goats, the indie superstars behind one of the most emboldened and passionate acts in music today, have shows in Central Florida on back to back nights. Brasky staff attended the show in Orlando on Tuesday night and are fully prepared to simultaneously discuss the proceedings and TOTALLY SPOIL the Wednesday night show in Tampa. Read on if you dare…
Part 1 – The Band (Skip to part two if you just want to know the juicy show details)
“Why the heck would I go see a band called the Mountain Goats?” This is a question that all those unfamiliar with the group surely will ask themselves. Newcomers are typically puzzled when confronting the M.G.’s didactic lyricism and hustling compositions; “is this folk, or hastily assembled irish sea shanties, or emo, or all three?” The Mountain Goats, to use an obscure cliche, are like licorice. People that like licorice, seriously like licorice. But most people can’t stand the stuff.
John Darnielle, the longtime frontman of the group, is a journeyman songwriter. He is a man that has lived in all corners of the United States and takes great pleasure in shining a light into the deepest corners of mundane human experience. He has the ability to bring staggering insight and craft musicianship together in a way that ties Neutral Milk Hotel to Bruce Springsteen while daftly stepping over the pitfalls that consumed Dashboard Confessional and Neil Young. The Mountain Goats have never seen full-blown indie success outside of college and XM radio, but their stunning catalog established the band as giants of the genre well before the Decemberists picked up their mandolas and accordions.
The newest album, All Eternal’s Deck, finds the band at their tightest, cleanest, and most incisive. The tunes move along with a confident swagger punctuated by snappy drumming and percussive guitar playing. The real jewel in all of the M.G.’s hard work is the bare-hearted lyrics. Darnielle’s gift is encapsulating the one moment per year when a person feels the most solipsistic; in this reverie the songwriter fashions breathless humanity into something no less stirring than a brutal personal memory, sung in a voice that sounds like a friend standing an arm’s length away, in the most dire of confidence. The narratives are a particularly visceral description of soaring highs and crushing lows that contain cutting conversational humor which evokes John Updike, Virginia Woolf, and, dare I say, David Foster Wallace. From the new album we have gems like “sometimes the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy” and “anyone here mentions Hotel California dies before the first line clears his lips”. If you, as a reader, take one thing to this show with you, it should be this: the lyrics are everything, and more than a few people will know all the words to the songs. And they will sing along. Hard.
Part Two: The Live Show
The Mountain Goats are supported on this tour by Nurses, a Portland indie outfit with solid bass lines and simple Modest Mouse-like flourishes that punctuate relaxed three minute carousals. I must admit that they sound much more thin en vivo than on recordings. Your humble reviewer considers himself a relatively objective critic, yet he is none the less having a hard time not completely dismissing Nurses. I will simply refer back to my notes from the event:
“Man, is that guy gonna sing like that the whole time? Inconsequential; nothing discernible to say; an even quieter Vampire Weekend, or better yet, a hipster UB40. The band works hard and sounds pretty good but it’s insanely forgettable. The set ends not with a bang but with a whimper: they just stopped playing what sounded like mid-song and packed up their instruments. About a dozen people really, really liked them.”
The Mountain Goats
As soon as MG hits the stage, expect intimacy with authenticity. As the band picked up their instruments, it felt distinctly like your cool uncle just showed up to Thanksgiving and the day was taking a turn for the better. Darnielle exists at the intersection of John Lennon and Stephen Colbert; unlikely rock star, comfortable demagogue, unrepentant bad boy and a sponge for gratitude. The man is a garrulous host who effortlessly ad libs and tells emphatic stories that wrap up with clever pay-offs and the opening chords of an interesting song. Repeatedly he effortlessly downplayed the hoots and taunts of drunks in the crowd with wit and elegance. The whole show lacked the sensation that the band was on a stage performing for paying guests, yet it was still quite easy to maintain the meek, inner thrill of being entertained. Darnielle is a consummate professional that often requests total silence and IPA’s (Harpoon, but he conceded that he would take a similar product) so that he may work within his comfort zone; keeping the frontman in the right mindset is in everybody’s interest. There were moments of grandeur but also an unsettling amount of errors and misfires. Several times Darnielle asked the audience for help remembering lyrics, and during a couple of new songs he had to consort with his band mates mid-song before he chuckled to himself and muttered things like “BFlat, yes…” and promptly picked up where he left off. Darnielle came very close to losing control more than twice as people began to talk and grow restless, but the songs always wrapped up quickly enough to rekindle interest. The crowd seemed fairly grown-up and difficult to impress. A dense cluster of passionate fans formed an island deep in front of the stage, and Darnielle’s frequent Florida references clearly delighted the faithful. The fact of the matter is that he is a better entertainer than a musician; there are quiet moments where he visibly decides whether to be funny as hell or darkly profound. Darnielle is a self-admitted well of energy that will settle for rambling diatribes that are well received by the crowd so long as they are willing to forgive his frequent lapses of memory; “I feel guilty but I can’t feel ashamed,” he sings in “Prowl Great Cain”. His backing band helps create a full sound but never seems like anything more than veteran practice mates. The musical support works for most of the show but lets Darnielle go solo for a few songs so that he may indulge in mid-set requests, rarities and one-man piano ballads. When they close with “This Year”, the crowd that had been patiently waiting to sing their hearts out released some great cathartic energy that was mitigated by knowing that it was going to be the last song… or was it amplified by the very same sensation? The encore came as a certainty, perhaps due to the fact that each song in their catalog plays like an encore. The Mountain Goats are innocuous yet mature: frightening no one, delighting a few and satisfying all. Verdict: exciting, fun, but not quite worth the bar tab.
The Set List:
Yeah Right. Brasky doesn’t remember the names of any songs. Except the two already mentioned above. Okay, and he also played “Jam Eater Blues”, which features the line “Life is too short to spend of the rest of it down here in Tampa…”
PRO-TIP! Yell and scream for them to play The Alphonse Mambo. It’s also about Tampa, fools.
Disclaimer: Don’t take what we say too seriously, just go to the show! Do it! Support excellent music!