I wasn’t cool in 1998 but I was lucky enough to have a friend who was, and he hipped me to all kinds of music I wouldn’t have heard on my own until years later. I first saw the Mountain Goats at the Empty Bottle in 1999, opening was a teenage Conor Oberst, and it was love at first listen for me. Back then the Goats’ John Darnielle was still making lo fi recordings, though by now he was releasing them on CD instead of the homemade cassettes he started out doing. I loved those early records, the fuzzy home recordings were lyrically brilliant and the seemingly simple melodies infectious. The Coroner’s Gambit and Tallahassee in 2000 and 2002 came as a surprise, those records actually sounded produced. I felt bad, but they were my new favorite Mountain Goats records. After that I kept buying the records, and they were all fine, but nothing came close to Gambit and Tallahassee. Even the recent shows failed to move me, though admittedly I hadn’t seen one in seven years. Still, when a friend asked if I wanted to see Darnielle play a solo show on Easter Sunday, I said yes, and just like that I was back in love with the Mountain Goats again.
He started off with a handful of old songs, the first going back all the way to Zeopilote Machine, his first real release. He was going to play it, that is, if he could only remember the first line. “Is (a name I’ve forgotten) here?” When an answer came from somewhere in the audience, he asked “How does “Alpha In Taurus” start?” Luckily his friend knew. That was one of a handful of surprising songs that he played, many of them going way back in his career. My two favorite records were featured heavily, from Gambit came “Island Garden Song,” “There Will be No Divorce, and the urgent opening track “Jaipur.” Of the latter he said he had put it on the set list the night before, but then skipped it, and that he was tempted to skip it again tonight. In a moment of self-analysis, he decided he must have some sort of fear of that song that he was determined to overcome. Once I heard which song it was, immediately identifiable by the opening line, “I had dreams of sugared pastries, cooked up in clarified butter,” I was happy he did. Speaking of great lines, “No Divorce” has one of my all time favorites, “You gathered your hair behind your head, like god was going to catch you by the ponytail.
He moved between the piano and guitar, relishing the chance to play some of the slower songs that he doesn’t get a chance to perform with the band. He talked about learning that everything didn’t have to be played at breakneck speed, it was OK to slow down the melody. “In fact,” he quipped, “that’s how ‘Coroner’s Gambit’ came about.” He picked a couple songs from the deeply personal Sunset Tree, which dealt with growing up in an abusive home. “Dance Music” talks about finding an escape in records, while “This Year” is just about surviving. He also took the opportunity to talk a lot about the songs and where they came from. The unreleased “Song for Black Sabbath on Their Second US Tour” revealed an affection for Ozzy Osbourne that is only surprising if you don’t know Darnielle, he has a knack for finding the beauty in any style of music. Witness his covers of “The Sign” or “FM.” For example he finished the second encore with a gorgeous piano ballad version of Osbourne’s “Shot in the Dark.”
Perhaps the only song better was “No Children” from the amazing Tallahassee. He preceded it with a rant about the days before no fault divorce, when you were forced to stay married to someone who would turn you into a shriveled husk of what you were if you didn’t have a good reason to not be together anymore. It was especially cathartic to hear the crowd sing along with such hate filled lines as “I hope you die, I hope we both die,” and “Our friends say it’s darkest before the dawn, we’re pretty sure they’re all wrong.” I couldn’t stop smiling that night and I have stopped smiling since. It’s good to be in love again.