They may not be the best ever death metal band out of Denton, but the Mountain Goats can take claim to one of the best live shows currently going. You could write an entire thinkpiece on the nature of John Darnielle’s stage presence. This is something that became quite clear during last night’s sold out show at Bowery Ballroom, as the 45-year-old singer-songwriter jammed, danced, rocked and joked around for almost two hours.
There are few frontmen quite as adept at reacting to a crowd like Darnielle; even the obnoxious tradition of shouting out song requests didn’t faze him; in one memorable moment in the early goings, a fan shouted out “This Year!” to which Darnielle replied by laughing. “Yeah, I’m gonna play that in the middle of the solo part of the set. That would be like telling you all to go home. Hold that thought, guy.” It was all in good fun, which was sorely needed because the Mountain Goats’ discography is full of some depressing tales.
One of the early highlights of the set was just one of those depressing tales: “Harlem Roulette,” a song from the band’s new album Transcendental Youth, tells of ’60s singer Frankie Lymon, who died of a heroin overdose at 25. Darnielle told the crowd what the song was about before playing it (as he did for almost every song on the set), and there was a sense of uncomfortable atmosphere throughout. It’s a hell of a song, but how do you cheer the tale of a doomed man? The Mountain Goats revel in this sort of conflict: they create uplifting songs about men and women who are devastated or, even more affecting, devastatingly flawed. The entirety of the new album loosely connects a theme of studying the lost and wandering, a theme that is difficult to get past when hearing them performed with Darnielle’s trademark vigor.
At one point, as mentioned above, Darnielle sent away the rest of his band to play a solo section that consisted of just a man and his guitar. These songs were all classics from the band’s long and illustrious history. The best of these is the heartfelt and earnest “You Were Cool,” a song that under lesser hands could be condescending. The loudest cheer of the early goings came in the iconic line, “I hope the people who did you wrong/ have trouble sleeping at night.” This made Darnielle crack an even wider smile than normal, which he explained afterwards: “I don’t like telling people what the best songs are, but that’s a song for a real person and I’m glad it resonates with people.”
A helping hand was lent by the Transcendental Three, otherwise known as the horn section. There were some mutters when the newest record was released that the horns were out of place in the band’s catalog (I don’t agree with that assessment), but it’s clear that Darnielle included them at least partly for the live set. The trio of new songs that followed the section’s introduction (“White Cedar,” “In Memory of Satan,” and “Spent Gladiator 2”) all used the horns differently, but the brass added a special touch to the night that wasn’t so much missing as it was waiting for patiently.
The best use of the horns (and subsequently the best song of the set) was the first encore closer and quite possibly the most famous Mountain Goats song: “This Year.” A song that contains no horns on record, it became something more, with each few lines in the verses being broken up with improvisational-like melodies and Darnielle’s ecstatic stomping and strumming. There are few things better than hearing a favorite song turn into something new, and the crowd paid back this great deed by shouting at the top of their lungs: “I am going to make it through this year/ if it kills me.” It’s a simple thought, but you can’t beat 500+ people belting it. A triple-song second encore closed out the night with a bit more energy than one would expect, before bowing out with a guitar-less version of “No Children.” The fatalistic track was a fitting ending, as the crowd marched out with thoughts of death, joy, and passion.