The Mountain Goats take Pride to the Middle East

A review of The Mountain Goats at the Middle East Downstairs on March 15, 2008

, Staff Writer

There was quite a buzz at the Paradise Saturday night for the ultra-hip French duo Justice, who came to Boston bearing slick, synthesized songs and an over the top light show. Over in Cambridge at the Middle East, John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats were doing something very different, delivering plainly adorned songs bursting with emotion.

Darnielle’s music contains some of the best lyrical narratives this side of Springsteen, and the band is concerned solely with allowing the emotions contained in each song to show through by matching them with their musical approach.

From the beginning of the set it was clear that the sold out crowd was already in the band’s pocket, singing along heartily to "You Or Your Memory", the opening track from 2005’s The Sunset Tree. Darnielle further endeared himself to the audience, introducing “Autoclave”, which contains a lyric from the Cheers theme song, by saying, “I thought of you people when I wrote this song. And when I say you people I mean this town. I thought this could go one way or go the other.”

Pretty much everything the band did went the good way. “Wild Sage” was so quiet that Darnielle sang a verse from the front of the stage without a microphone as drummer Jon Wurster and bass player Peter Hughes displayed the delicacy of a jazz trio.

The quiet was shattered by the kinetic juggernaut “Sax Rohmer #1”, the excellent lead single from the band’s new album Heretic Pride, which Darnielle confessed he doesn’t play often because “I confuse the words because it’s not a linear narrative. As a Catholic I crave a linear narrative.”

As the set continued its non-linear trajectory, Wurster and Hughes left Darnielle to himself for a brief set, including “Have to Explode”, which made its Mountain Goats tour debut to rave reviews. “Lady From Shanghai”, another rarity, made the indie-Springsteen comparison even more apt, sounding like it wouldn’t be out of place on Nebraska.

At this point in the show Darnielle announced that the next day was his birthday, and the crowd serenaded him with an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” that left the singer visibly appreciative. The crowd visibly appreciated the band’s return to the stage for “Jeff Davis County Blues”, an extremely pretty song that was met with a solid ovation.

Darnielle picked up an electric guitar for what promised to be the aggressive part of the evening, kicking things off with the slow burn of “In the Craters of the Moon”, which built into a fuzzed out crescendo, allowing the instruments to do the emotional heavy lifting for the first time of the night. The band then pulled back for the reverb soaked “Love Love Love”, which was backed by the audience singing along in muffled, reverent tones.

The ebbs and flows of the set continued with the aggressive tom rumble and guitar stabs of the verses of “Lion’s Teeth”, which contrasted very nicely with the free sway of the chorus. As Darnielle thanked the crowd, the band began “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”, finally showing how comfortable they are in the role of a traditional rock band.

The Mountain Goats briefly left the stage before returning for the most perfect encore I have ever witnessed in person. First up was the emotional flamethrower “Going to Georgia”, except with a little twist. The recorded version is all tape hiss and bedroom angst, just Darnielle and his acoustic guitar. The new live reworking features a steadier tempo, sunny harmonies, and a more refined, pop sense. The sense of desperation and immediacy was lessened, but the overall beauty was enhanced.

Darnielle graciously thanked a fan for their gift of whiskey, but apologized, saying, “I’m not going to drink it. I’m trying to safeguard tomorrow morning. There’s nothing worse than waking up on your birthday and feeling like ass. Plus, I have to get to Mass in the morning. I’ll see you there.” He then introduced the next song, saying, “I’m going to play this song ‘cause I mean it.” That song was, of course, “This Year”, with its desperate mantra of a chorus providing the perfect resolution for a new year.

The Mountain Goats are a great band, but not always in the traditional sense (there was only one guitar solo, and it was terrible). But Darnielle writes great songs, and the band makes sure that they do those songs justice. And the results are special: powerful, memorable albums. A rabid fan base. And one amazing night at the Middle East.

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