Photos by Justin Rodgers
The Mountain Goats began their North American fall tour this week at 9:30 Club, clad in black and bearing candelabras, over the course of two nights. Supporting their 16th studio album Goths, an album inspired by “an adolescence listening to The Cure” (and presumably hanging out at the mall), John Darnielle and friends played a two-hour, discography-spanning set, accompanied by stage settings and themes that extended the Halloween season well into November.
Athens-based four piece Mothers set the evening’s mood off right, their own experimental and genre-crossing, folk-influenced music the perfect accompaniment to The Mountain Goats. A strong reliance on changing tempos and polyrhythm, Mothers’ music feels like four separate appendages coming at the listener at once, an off-kilter sense of rhythm creating an eerie and atmospheric sound, with Kristine Leschper’s melodic vox cutting through a haze of guitars. The band’s abrupt, discordant shifts through major and minor keys, relying on math rock-styled time signature changes before shifting into a grooving, driving 4/4, is both disorienting and interesting. Mothers mitigates the difficult listening of shoegaze-styled art rock and traditional indie to create a satisfying, energetic romp. The band finished on a guitar-driven, quasi-rockabilly stomp, the intertwining of guitar lines building to a fever pitch.
As a side note, credit is deserved to whomever curates the playlists in between bands at 9:30. After Mothers struck their set, two black candelabras were brought out as stage decorations while the playlist transitioned to some appropriately-scary black metal. Well played.
In time, drummer Jon Wurster entered, playing the smooth downtempo intro to “The Grey King and the silver Flame Attunement” while the rest of the band entered en masse. Darnielle, sitting at his keyboard and waxing melancholy about being “hardcore, but not that hardcore” behind a swirling maroon light display, created a vibe that could only be described as a sexy, spooky jazz club. Breaking from any guise of trying to be cool, Darnielle concluded the song by goofily yelling “hi, we’re the Mountain Goats” before jumping into a percussive, driving rendition of “Cotton” from 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed.
A common through line of the band’s discography is the cathartic nature of music–the ability to process horrible shit through personal songwriting and performance, be it growing up with an abusive stepfather or getting addicted to methamphetamine in Portland, Oregon. Darnielle as a storyteller peppers in humorous anecdotes that shine light upon the serious subject matter of his music in a way that lets the audience laugh through the pain, a testament to the individual’s ability to overcome. One story at last Tuesday’s performance, regarding the song “Unicorn Tolerance” from Goths, described what Darnielle calls a “geographical–you know, when you move somewhere new to solve your problems. I’ve written quite a few songs about this.” It’s a truly remarkable stage presence, a mix of music and storytelling that enables both a better understanding of The Mountain Goats wide oeuvre and a celebration of the human capacity for survival.
Weaving across the multitude of genre influences throughout the evening–from Goths’ smooth jazz to The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed’s folk rock, Darnielle performed solo and acoustic for the show’s fourth act, diving into the band’s early, lo-fi sound with renditions of “Some Swedish Trees” from Sweden and “Sun Song” from Hot Garden Stomp, recalling how bandmate Peter Hughes was “one of the first three people to hear that song.”
The Mountain Goats chose the last part of their performance to be their most energetic, tearing through crowd pleasers “Broom People,” “This Year,” and “Up The Wolves,” the latter of which’s lyrics about bribing officials and killing judges read as political theatre in the context of the evening’s midterm elections. A tour-de-force five song encore ended on a downtempo segue, in which Darnielle, walking across the stage, mic in hand, fiendishly flourishing like a poorly paid lounge singer, implored the audience to “stay alive.” Darnielle’s music and story are a testament to the fact that sometimes, that can be difficult.