I have never been a fan of the music of The Mountain Goats. I’ve admired them from afar, aware of their influence and devoted following, but I always bounced off their recorded work each time I tried to give it a listen. The arrangements, production choices and the band’s melodic turns never quite resonated with me.
Over the years, however, I’ve grown to love the written word of the Goats’ singer-songwriter, John Darnielle. Both his entry in the 33 1/3 music retrospective book series on Black Sabbath’s *Master of Reality* and his first proper novel *Wolf in White Van* explored troubled protagonists through a lens that focused just as much on humour and pathos as it did on absolute devastation. These resonated a great deal with me, and I had been meaning to return to Darnielle’s work with the Mountain Goats with this newfound appreciation, hoping to find parallels between his music and his prose that I could latch onto. And so, I leapt at the chance to see them at L’Astral this past Sunday night.
Chicago’s Dead Rider opened the evening with an irreverent blast of jazzy noise skronk that served as the perfect foil to the Goats’ more polite indie rock leanings. Todd Rittmann, the group’s vocalist and guitar player, was an erratic yet magnetic presence; much to the crowd’s amusement, he opened the set by improvising lyrics about the freezing rain he’d witnessed that day in Montreal, calling it the discovery of a “fifth state of matter”.
At times, Dead Rider reminded me of the noise rock stomp of The Jesus Lizard, or of a version of Swans that had spent a bit more time playing in dive bars rather than in art galleries. One song echoed fellow Windy City luminaries Tortoise, with liquid guitar lines sharing space with gauzy electronic drum pads and pitch-shifted sampled vocals, while another overlaid horror movie keyboards and free-associative howling atop a muscular, roiling torrent of percussion from drummer Matt Espy. The band ended their set with a song that sounded like “Maggot Brain” by way of Mr Bungle, Rittmann riding a scattershot guitar solo over mournful piano chords before everything dissolved into a burst static.
The Mountain Goats took the stage to the tune of “No Substitute” by glam rocker and former KISS member Vinnie Vincent blaring over the P.A. system. A triumphant entrance that foreshadowed the confidence, bombast and generosity that the band would display throughout their career-spanning set. A barefoot John Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, and drummer Jon Wurster, all wearing dapper suits, radiated warmth and energy at the Montreal crowd gathered on this cold and damp evening.
And the crowd responded in kind. I couldn’t have expected this level of feverish excitement from a Sunday night audience. The set became a non-stop pogo-hopping sing-along. The Goats’ songs are literate confessionals and quiet exorcisms for the disenfranchised on record, but in a live setting they take on the form of cathartic emotional purges, audience members channelling their life experience through Darnielle’s lyrics and the band’s folky churn. Sweaty and whipped into an exalted fervor by Wurster going absolutely the fuck off on his kit, I saw strangers exchange massive hugs in the pit while singing “I don’t want to die in here” at the top of their lungs during main set closer “Heel Turn 2” from 2015’s *Beat the Champ*. I couldn’t sing along, I didn’t know the words. But in that moment I understood what this band meant to people, and it was contagious.
After a brief break, the Mountain Goats brought out the members of Montreal indie pop band Pony Up for a joyous cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town”, as well as for “This Year” from 2005’s *The Sunset Tree*. Despite the dark irony, the latter song’s chorus of “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” sounded defiant and massive, with all four members of Pony Up joining their backing vocals to Darnielle and the crowd’s chants.
For their second and final encore, the Mountain Goats went smaller and I caught a glimpse of that unique blend of wit and sadness that I love about Darnielle’s books. “I don’t know everything, but I do know that some of you are going to get divorced”, the singer told the crowd before going into “No Children”, a song from 2005’s *Tallahassee* about a toxic relationship and the slow dissolve of marriage. Everyone in the room smiled and chuckled a bit, a tacit acknowledgement of the humour inherent in such a statistical inevitability, and a wry reminder of the pain and sadness that we’ve all felt and yet to feel. It takes a special kind of artist to end their set with this kind of sentiment, and on Sunday it became obvious to me that the Mountain Goats are a special kind of band.
Reviewer & Photos – Jean-Michel LacombeShare this :