The Mountain Goats, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 10/1
NYC ROLL-TOP: New York Gets Lonely
The irony of the reverence with which Mountain Goats fans held John Darnielle at the Bowery Ballroom is that Darnielle's voice was born to cut through crowds. Recording legitimately literary songs through a boombox whirrrrrrrr for a prolific decade before moving into proper studios, Darnielle’s singing is shrill and reedy: an efficient content delivery system for noisy sonic environs. At the Bowery, from the moment Darnielle stepped on stage, one could — and did — literally hear keys jingling in pockets, beer cups crinkling, ice settling.
Darnielle made the most of it, though, opening with "Maybe Sprout Wings," sung in his earnest new upper octave whisper. "It's almost feminine," my mother noted, when she heard Get Lonely, Darnielle’s autumnal new record. Like all of his recent work, Get Lonely is contrarian to the core. The more penetrating Darnielle’s lyrics become, the more adult contemporary his arrangements seem to grow. Live, however, it’s still the stripped folk-punk duo of Darnielle and bassist Peter Hughes, who peppers Darnielle’s strident strums with dramatic root notes.
With a devoted audience — this was the second of two sold-out shows, plus one in Brooklyn — Darnielle often speaks conversationally. He talked setlist structure, assuming the audience was familiar with his massive catalog, with a trio of songs from All Hail West Texas, including "Jeff Davis County Blues," "Color In Your Cheeks," and "Jenny" (more contrarianism: Darnielle sung much of the natural sing-along’s melody at an odd harmony to itself, Dylan-style). Darnielle frequently leaned towards the theatrical, occasionally gesticulating with his strumming hand while singing, not to mention semi-jocular monologue prologues to songs about suicide, bitterly decaying relationships, and child/spousal abuse.
Even when keyboardist (and journalist) Franklin Bruno joined Darnielle and Hughes to recreate the arrangements of the recent albums, it was still about Darnielle and his lyrics. Impossibly detailed, both emotionally and visually, Darnielle has virtually no peers. "I went down to the gas station for no particular reason, heard the screams from the high school, it's football season," he sang on "Moon Over Goldsboro," a Raymond Carver story set to an acoustic guitar if ever there was one. There is "frost on the sidewalk, white as a bone." "I lay down in the weeds," Darnielle sang, "it was a real cold night. I was happy until the overnight attendant switched on the floodlight."
Between feel-good-because-you-feel-bad anthems like "This Year" ("I will make it through this year if it kills me!") and "No Children" ("I hope that you die, I hope we both die!"), Darnielle closed the show out with a pair of novelties, and the evening's moment of deepest desolation. Putting down his acoustic guitar, he delivered a suitably tongue-sincerely-in-cheek Bruno-accompanied reading of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" and Bruno's own disturbingly hilarious "House Guest" (its writer on acoustic guitar). And for his final encore, fronting in front of Hughes' guitar, another suicide song, Get Lonely’s closer: "In Corolla."
For all of his darkness, Darnielle's performance was utterly uplifting. "It was cool, and it was quiet," Darnielle whispered during his second encore, "in the humid marsh down there. I let my head sink down beneath the brackish water, felt it gumming up my hair." When Darnielle existed, Hughes still playing, nobody wanted any more. There wasn't anything left to give.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.