The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle loves the losers he sings about.
The Mountain Goats clamored onto the High Noon stage Friday night like four lovable brothers-in-law arriving late for Thanksgiving dinner. Owen Pallett and his far reaching Final Fantasy project had already set the table -- and the tone -- with surreal recipes of loops and longing. Pallett would return to add garnish to a few of the North Carolina indie band's most beautiful pieces
Outside, the weather was cheating; a balmy November night begged for love under the smoky smudge of a moon. It was the perfect night for Mountain Goats front man John Darnielle's songs of sympathy for sinners. Darnielle looked crisp and casual in a burnt orange suit coat, jeans and leather moccasins. He's always been a non-believer who's very convincing. His renderings from the new, Bible based-release, The Life of the World to Come are particularly good vehicles for that sensibility and were sprinkled throughout the 18-song set.
But the older songs ruled the night, whether it was because of the mood of the crowd or the earnest feeling Darnielle seemed to cop from singing them. Midway, Pallett joined Darnielle in a duet for "Going to Bristol." Plucked fiddle notes and voice turned the number into a sermon in search of a soul.
Darnielle, chosen by Paste magazine as one of the 100 greatest living songwriters, is justifiably famous for his words. However, the musical frames he builds for his stories allow the words to stand taller -- no small feat given that his tunes are generally bereft of traditional verse/chorus/refrain sensibilities.
"Song for Dennis Brown" chugged along downcast, down-tempo, like the characters that inhabit it. The lyrics are powerful but, again, it's the music that convinces the audience that Darnielle loves the losers he sings about. A sick man, a dumpster diver, soaring birds doomed to be shot from the sky. A miserable matrix of man and beast made wonderful by Darnielle's luminous stage presence, his gleam, his spirit.
"And when the birds come home in the spring," he sang, "we will fill them full of buckshot," he finished and glanced back to drummer Jon Wurster who pulled the trigger with a rifle crack on the snare.
Wurster, known for his work with Superchunk, also has drummed with a crazy mix of others -- from R.E.M. to Charlie Daniels. But it's his sense of humor that makes his contribution to the Mountain Goats so worthy.
Wurster grips his left stick side-style, like an old jazz drummer. The angle gives him enormous wrist action, which he employs by adding comic grace notes to Darnielle's tales. He turned "Hast Thou Considered" into a slapstick shout out, simmering hiss into the song by riding his crash and avoiding the high hat altogether. Darnielle's version of this number was as quirky as even he can get, put over like a principal's announcement over a classroom loud speaker.
Bassist Peter Hughes dressed in a brown, wide-striped suit with stove-pipe trousers. He looked like the character Billy the Butcher from Scorcese's Gangs of New York. He carved into the meat of the music like him, too, especially on the drastic rocker "Letter from Belgium."
It's hard to say if Darnielle's songs would be more or less enticing were it not for his unusual sounding, nasal- enhanced voice. At high volume, on sustained notes, it fills the room like a World War II air raid siren. It's alarming and hilarious all at once. That combination thrilled the sold out venue during the band's encore tune, "No Children."
Lines like, "I hope that it stays dark forever...I hope we both die!" look pretty bleak on paper. But it was a happy sing-along in Mountain Goat land, a screwball place where love between travelers onstage and off "blooms like a huge alcoholic flower."