The Mountain Goats live review 12/6-7/11

Forgive me if I ramble. I do that sometimes when I write concert reviews. I always liked those book-long concert reviews like Ratso Sloman's "On the Road with Bob Dylan" and they kind of infected my brain, the same way my sinuses have lately been infected, causing my ears to clog up so much I can barely hear.  As such, having heard that the Mountain Goats would be playing an un-amplified show a mile or so from my apartment I resolved to arrive early enough to sit someplace where I could hear. For the uninitiated, the Mountain Goats are a band consisting of John Darnielle and whoever else is in the band at the time. Sometimes it's just him. They've put out a ton of albums since their first tape 20 years ago.

I'm sort of new to the Mountain Goats fold. I first heard them years ago, but even then the sheer volume of their output intimidated me a bit (where would I start?), and I'm always a bit afraid of bands that have a large indie following. I like a lot of those bands, but I always feel like the indie scene is a bunch of big kids who won't let me play basketball with them. I think this is the result of growing up in suburban Iowa and Snellville, Georgia and being really, really into Star Wars in 1992 (when it was NOT a popular thing to be into).  When you grow up like that, everyone else seems cooler than you.

But a year or so back I noticed that about 2/3rds of the songs I'd had to look up after hearing them on the radio at the coffee shop were Mountain Goats songs - "This Year" and "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" sealed it for me, and I ran out and picked up "Sunset Tree," which had "This Year," and All Hail West Texas, which had "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton," which I already knew that I loved -  I felt like it was about my friends and me; we had bands with names like Scapegoat (which still exists and records, along with 50 other bands of the same name) and Supernatural Anarchy. Our music was recorded on boom boxes. All Hail West Texas was also recorded on a boom box, but somehow it made the tape hiss noise WORK in a way that I never dreamed possible. And then there are the lyrics.  I write young adult novels for a living; I can tell you right now that many of these songs about characters trying to do the right thing even though they think of themselves as evil, Huck Finn-style, tell more in 8 lines than most YA books do in 200 pages.

Nowadays, when people ask about my own solo albums, I just direct them to The Mountain Goats and say "this is what I was trying to do."

I'm still not NEAR the point where I know every song based on the first line (hey, that took me years with Dylan and Springsteen and Waits, and the Mountain Goats have a catalog as large as any of those guys), but I have most of the albums by now and I'm still in that wonderful period when you get into a band where there are new surprises every time you put an album on. The ear worms built into these songs are mind-boggling. I often wake up wanting to hear one line from "Broom People" or "Pink and Blue" again and again (very few solo acoustic albums do this sort of thing so well). I'm hooked, heavy as lead. I even managed to write a scene where the characters sing along to "This Year" while going on a holy quest through Des Moines into a book that came out last month (though the publisher made me obfuscate all song references so thoroughly that you'll never notice if you don't already know the song). I've been hooked by bands like this before, but mostly when I was a teenager. I wasn't sure it was possible to have a band hit me like this now that I'm over 30. I'm sure glad it is.

I found out about The Second City's "Letters to Santa," a 24 hour marathon of improv and music raising actual cash for actual Chicago families, when it was mentioned on The Mountain Goats' twitter feed. $20 gets you in the door, and some big spenders arrive to spend more inside. There were silent auctions for things like "A day in the studio with Steve Albini" and a private Jeff Tweedy concert in your living room. I would not be missing this, sinus infection or no. I had some antibiotics left from a previous infection, and by mixing them up with some painkillers and decongestants I could be functional enough to handle a concert, as long as I sat close enough to hear through my clogged ears.

At about 6:30 I walked into the room -which held perhaps 200 people- and found a seat close enough to the stage that I could rest my feet on it. I've only seen The Mountain Goats once before, and that was from the balcony at the Vic. Seeing a show this close up by someone I would normally see in a venue of that size was just about beyond my wildest dreams. I've been up front at concerts before, but at this point in my career as a music fan I'm seldom willing to put in the work necessary for the front row. But this was a different kind of night. One when I needed to be close just to hear anything, to start with. And I don't think I've ever been to a proper concert so unplugged that it wasn't even amplified before.

After some improv scenes from the Second City crew, the evening really got under way with Jeff Tweedy, who was there live via Skype in a Santa hat. He's usually there in person, but tonight he was playing in Minneapolis, beaming to us from a backstage room which they'd decorated with TWO Christmas trees (in a show of rock star excess, he joked). He  auctioned off a few "laptop dances," in which you could sit in front of the laptop that was being used to connect to him while he played a song of your choice to you. He raised about a thousand bucks playing "Remember the Mountain Bed" (a Woody Guthrie stunner), "Via Chicago," "California Stars," and one or two more. In between he talked a bit to his wife and son, who were there in the audience. He ended by auctioning off three "live at your house for you and 29 friends" concerts. He was just auctioning one of them off at first, but when three people bid to 25k, he offered to just do all three, raising 75k for charity in one quick go.

Jeff's son was right next to me, reading a book (not one of mine - poop) and Steve Albini was right behind me. This is the way I always imagined big city dwellers spent their evenings when I was a kid. It was awesome.

After some more improv scenes, Nina Nastasia played a bit, opening her set with John Denver's "Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas," which sounds like it could be funny but is really sort of a downer. After her set there was some more improv, building up to a money-making game in which a bunch of the cast stood onstage, announced their areas of expertise, and challenged the audience to ask them questions. If they got them right, the questioner had to donate five bucks. If they were wrong, they'd donate five bucks of their own. Areas of expertise included "The Mets," "Star Wars and Marijuana," "Arizona," "American History," and "Skateboarders from the 90s,"  Had I been up there, my areas of expertise would probably be "Bob Dylan" and "Grave Robbing."

Midway through the game, John Darnielle crept into the line and announced that his area of expertise was "Black Sabbath, in the years that Ozzy Osbourne was NOT the singer." Someone then asked a guy whose expertise was "the satanic verses" a question to which the answer was "Denton, TX," and John jumped in to answer. "Denton, TX, land of happiness!" he shouted.

By the time of John's set I had been in my seat for about five hours - roughly a whole school day. I don't remember the last time I sat in one place for so long - I had a.d.d. back BEFORE it was hip. But I was having a blast.

John opened with four songs - "High Hawk Season," "The Alphonse Mambo," "Woke Up New," and "Rotten Stinking Mouthpiece," often explaining the story behind them. I was entranced by the way he seemed to be playing guitar with his whole body - rocking back and forth, stomping his feet, and stalking about the stage. No microphone, no guitar cable over which to trip. Most of your top guitar players mainly play with their fingers; John seemed to use his fingers LESS than the rest of his body. All at once I could see how he manages to sound so much more listenable than most solo acoustic acts do to me - he simply has more OOMPH. In my notes I see that I wrote down "John doesn't just sing his songs, he DECLARES them."

After those songs, he mentioned that he's always nervous that, on shows where he's not the main attraction, no one will actually know who he was, so he asked for requests. Someone asked for "Orange Ball of Hate," and John asked "How much would you donate to the children of Chicago for 'Orange Ball of Hate?'" then played it for a 10 buck donation. 

Things spiraled from there. After "Orange Ball" he did a very quiet version "Riches and Wonders" (just incredible!) and "The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix's Life," which I didn't know, for which someone offered five bucks. Then someone offered $40 for "No Children," and someone paid $300 (300!) for "Dance Music." John followed that with his own choice, "For TG and Y," which I'd never heard and which hit me hard, as my career has currently landed in "hang on to your dreams 'til someone beats them out of you" territory.

Someone then offered some cash for "My Favorite Things," which John happily played, even though he joked that it was a song that you could only possibly know if you were into downloading unreleased music online. I've been into unreleased songs since back in the days when we had to mail tapes around (and we liked it! We liked it fine!), and with some bands the unreleased songs are the only ones I know, but I didn't know this one. Loved it, though. 

A guy then put in a crisp hundred dollar bill for "Going to Georgia," and to close the set, someone offered $20 for "a cover," and John did his version of "The Boys are Back in Town" which, to my great amusement, took a song that already sounded like early Springsteen and completely reworked it into a song that sounded like even earlier Springsteen.

After loud calls for an encore, John came up to the piano beside the stage and told the story of getting the idea for "Enoch 18:14" from the video game "Odin Sphere." Plenty of people can do things like writing a song from the point of view of a briefly-glimpsed video game character, but few can do it without an obvious smirk, if not an outright joke, behind it. In those pre-internet days, when you'd never know that the chorus line came from a video game scene if you didn't play that game (and pay close attention to it), it would have sounded like a weird, eerie, and completely serious song. Because that's what it is. It just happens to be based on a video game.

I wanted to stick around longer in case he came back out (which he did), and on the off-chance that I could have an awkward, "Mr. Fan I'm a big Darnielle of yours"-type encounter, but it was past my bedtime and the painkillers were wearing off. I walked out trying to remember when I've had a better time at a concert. Or a better seat. I'm not sure I'll ever top seeing Metallica with Danzig and Suicidal Tendencies when I was 13 (that's the kind of experience that you just can't do better than tie), but this was up there in the "shows I'll always remember as a high point" list, up there with Tom Waits in 99 on the trip that made me fall in love with Chicago, Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions band, Dylan in a fake beard at Newport, those Counting Crows shows from 1997, and the first time I saw the Polkaholics. 

This is the kind of thing you get to do when you live in the city. Your rent is really high, and every time an election rolls around you see people on TV making speeches implying that your values aren't as strong as those of people in small towns, but you also get to live walking distance from any number of places that do a really good Italian beef sandwich (at least in THIS city), and to venues where you can have a night like this. One night a few years ago I got off work, walked across the street and saw McCoy Tyner, the pianist from the mighty John Coltrane Quartet, in a  tiny jazz club. And now this. These are a few of MY favorite things. So tonight I got to see The Mountain Goats, fully unplugged, in a tiny venue sitting between Jeff Tweedy's son and Steve Albini. I love living in the city.

And after a month in the doldrums of my latest career/identity crisis, this was just what I needed to bust out of my funk. Well, this and the new Muppet movie. This morning I still can't hear very well and feel like I'm talking with a fishbowl on my head, but I feel like I'm in fighting shape and ready for action again.

No comments:

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013