October 21, 2012

Scaling Mountains of Emotion

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The Haunt, with all the characteristics of a bar, exudes the atmosphere of something else. Even with the countless picture frames and, yes, a bar where patrons sit, a waist-high partition wraps the bar away from the stage area. Past that half-hearted barrier, the sky-high windows and beige walls off stage right evoke an open coffee shop  on a cobblestone street.

This is a perfect setting for a band like the Mountain Goats: The group neither plays wild party music nor somnolent indie rock. The Mountain Goats lies somewhere in the middle. John Darnielle, the band’s core player, writes Mid-Western folk-rock with a conviction that punk rockers with anarchy decals lack. It is a rustic, sophisticated politeness that hearkens back to an era where “radical” didn’t mean smashing your guitar.

Nor does it mean overshadowing your music with your personality. As the three members jumped on stage to raucous applause, they started without introduction and encouraged the audience to sing along. It was only after the final guitar chords of the first song that Darnielle quickly introduced the band: “HiWe’reTheMountainGoats!”

Even though the Mountain Goats migrated to a more clean-cut production from DIY bedroom rock, the band still plays with a lo-fi enthusiasm that reveals a reservoir of energy not shown in its recorded work. The band may have only had an acoustic guitar, a bass and a drum set, but they rocked out those instruments. Peter Hughes, playing bass, bee-danced with Darnielle. Jon Wurster, on drums, switched between slow and fast playing frequently like a sonic chameleon.

But the real star was Darnielle, whose impressive voice range and powerful, emotional delivery alternated between tearing up the audience and delivering witty self-reflection about his songs. When introducing fan favorite “First Few Desperate Hours,” he began an intricate story about different everyday fantasies: The first is “fantasizing who you sleep with,” and the second is leaving the house and wondering if you left the coffeemaker on. “Then it turns out that you burned the house down because the bills were close to the burner and then you wonder why you burned down the house you worked so hard for.”  People chuckled, but the whole thing went over everybody’s  head, so Darnielle focused back on the music. “Anyway, this song is about that fantasy, which is basically fantasizing that there is somebody that would knock on your door and tell you that your relationship is ending.”

These anecdotes, delivered at a fast, New Yorker-pace, is a big reason why seeing the Mountain Goats live is worth it. As it moved to “Harlem Roulette,” Darnielle explains that he was inspired by singer Frankie Lymon, a child star who lost everything after his voice broke. But in typical Darnielle fashion, it sounded more like a pep talk to Lymon than just a folk retelling of his fall. “Every dream’s a good dream / even awful dreams are good dreams … remember soaring higher than a cloud / get pretty sentimental now and then.” Before “In Memory of Satan,” he exclaimed, “This is a song where you worship Satan!” before returning back to his normal voice. “You don’t know it at first, but you eventually realize that and then you fall into a hole trying to normalize and then you’re miserable but then you climb out of it. Time to time though you remember that time, so this song is about that.”

At times, the band lost its command of the stage to the people sitting at the bar — The Haunt’s partition may be jerk-proof, but it isn’t soundproof. When playing “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace” (“This song is about the pain and sexual tension between a guy being tortured and the guy doing the torturing”), the bar drowned out Darnielle’s quiet piano pauses. The crowd threw dirty looks, but it was only after the song ended and Darnielle called them out to huge applause that the bar quieted down.

“See America Right” was supposed to end the show, but the prolonged screams for an encore drew the band back out. “Thank you so much, you are amazingly kind!” Darnielle shouted before “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1.” This time, without his guitar, he gesticulated and sang with a life-affirming  rage fitting of his lyrics: “Just stay alive.”

Before the band’s last song for the night, “This Year,” someone screamed “I LOVE YOU!” and Darnielle, not missing a beat, replied, “I love you too; get ready to jump up and down.” And so the crowd started jumping up and down, riled up by how all of Darnielle’s songs stood in solidarity with their hearts. But in their enthusiasm, the crowd might have missed that Darnielle’s last words were for himself: “I am going to make it through this year / If it kills me.”

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng

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