I’ve been working on my list of favourite gigs from 2006. I’m slow with these things, but invariably I get there eventually. It’s quite possible, though, that I have already experienced the best gig I will see all year.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me even remotely well that I am a Mountain Goats fan. Even though I was a little late to the party, it’s safe to say I’ve caught up in possibly record time. I’m nothing if not dedicated. In attempting to track down a copy of every album, EP and single ever released by the Goats, I’ve stumbled across songs that have touched me unlike any other music has touched me. Ever. And this is from the girl who did nothing but listen to, sleep and breathe Ani DiFranco for a period of 3 years.
The Mountain Goats are very good to their fans. They not only create the most organic, lyrically strong music you’ll ever hear, they release albums and EPs on a crazily regular basis and tour all the time. Also, they love Australia. They’re quite vocal about this and they come here a lot. The love, it seems, it mutual.
Poor old H & T had to cope with my crazyfangirl tendencies RE: getting early and making sure we were lining up for when the doors opened. Once we reached the venue I was happy to sit cross-legged on my patch of floor while they hung back on the first tier. Mmm, sticky. The DJ on stage was playing anything from the Bee Gees and Dolly Parton to the White Stripes – it was a pretty eclectic mix to say the least. His popping dance moves and over the top enthusiasm, combined with his King Gee overalls and GI Joe haircut were strangely, and a little disturbingly, winning.
There was a good vibe in the venue from the get go. It’s a little hard to describe, but there was such a throbbing, generous energy about the room. By the time John Vanderslice came on stage the crowd was more than ready for some live music.
I picked up a copy of Pixel Revolt some months ago now. I’ve given it motivated listening, but I just couldn’t develop a relationship with the music past ‘nice’. Lyrically it was strong, sure, but his voice and the structure of his songs seemed very similar to me of other music I was listening to obsessively at the time (namely Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens) so I sort of passed him by. Live, though, he is a very different experience. He weaves stories with his songs, and the emotion I didn’t feel on the album was there in full force on the stage. Even though the increasingly large crowd was a little noisy through his set, he seemed so happy to be there and very gracious for any applause he received. I picked up a copy of Cellar Door at the gig and I’ll be sure to listen to both albums again with new ears.
A highlight of the Vanderslice set was the last song Pale Horse – a kind of anti-Bush anthem. Peter Hughes came out on stage for this and offered some very enthusiastic clapping, to which the crowd clapped along to for the entire length of the song.
While the DJ was on the stage between sets the crowd began to swell. From my position right up front I could see Peter Hughes and Darnielle stage left, tuning guitars, changing shirts, generally getting ready to come on stage. Last song from the DJ, and then John Darnielle and Peter Hughes walk out on stage.
Huge cheering. Dorky grin from JD and a wave from Peter. They both pick up guitars and away we go.
Few people harness a crowd like JD does. He is just so earnest, so honest, and so open that people automatically relate to him. There is zero pretence in what he’s doing up there, and also in his responses to the crowd. His gratitude and appreciation for the people who come to see his music are so obvious it’s touching. Combine that level of humility with kick ass songs, gut-wrenching lyrics, very tight guitar (particularly from Hughes on the bass) and genuine humour both during and between songs, and you have an on stage charisma that you’re not likely to experience anywhere else but a Mountain Goats gig.
They opened the set with Wild Sage from the new album Get Lonely. I was expecting this from what I had read and heard about previous gigs. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was the effect it would have on the crowd. It’s crazy that a crowd that large can be subdued to an absolute hush by two men, two guitars, and one gasp of a song. Wild Sage has never been a favourite song of mine – in fact, it kinda repelled me first listen. Saturday night though it almost placed a spell over the crowd. The whole room, though, had the feeling of a coiled spring – JD kept his vocals to just above an audible whisper, but when he did raise his voice (like he does so well) even slightly, the crowd let out almost uncontrollable bursts of whooping and clapping. There was a giddy, nervous energy in the room and Darnielle had total control of the gauge.
Next they launched in Quito from We Shall All Be Healed – one of my favourite tracks on that album. From the opening chords it became obvious how many die hard fans were in the crowd – first two strums from JD and the cheers of recognition were sent to the rooftops. That lead to You Or Your Memory – at which point it became obvious how many fans of The Sunset Tree there were in the room. The whole song was one giant singalong, to which JD seemed visibly stoked.
Next song though, Dance Music, kicked the energy in the room up to fever pitch. I’m sure near ever person in the room sang along, and when he yelled out ‘sing it!’ the collective shout of I DON’T WANT TO DIE ALONE was deafening.
The version of Up The Wolves that came next was one of the highlights of the night for me. JD remarked that they hadn’t played it all tour, so Peter had to show him the chords. A couple of bars and away they went – more glorious uproarious singing from the crowd, particularly to the chorus.
After this there was a return to the quieter songs from the new album. Maybe Sprout Wings is lyrically (in my opinion) one of the best tracks on Get Lonely, and even on an album as subtle as Get Lonely is, one of the most delicate. Sang live JD gave it a lilting breathlessness and sense of hopelessness that held the crowd captive throughout the entire song – there was no sound save the music and around 2000 shoes sticking to a drink covered floor (note to the Metro/Century Theatre or whatever the hell it is you’re calling yourselves – great gig, great security, but d’you reckon you could invest in a mop?)
They next, to much appreciative cheering from the crowd, played Game Shows Touched Our Lives. Lyrically devastating and one of my favourite tracks from Tallahassee. Following this came In The Hidden Places which bought one of my favourite guitar moments of the night. JD and Hughes rocking out at the end of this track, almost oblivious to the crowd. He made a comment that the first time they played that song live was when they were in Australia last at the Annandale. He said while he was there he picked up a drink holder that he uses at home all the time that says ‘Fuck this – I’m going to the Annandale!’ Massive cheering from the crowd at this comment.
Broom people followed, then Song For Denis Brown. JD seemed genuinely stoked that the crowd got the very dark humour in this song, and were laughing and cheering in the right places while being pin-drop silent through the rest. Get Lonely followed – he spoke about how this song came from a very dark and quiet place, and hence was a very quiet song, but also that it was probably his favourite song on the new album.
At this point they bought John Vanderslice back out on the stage for some three way action for the last 4 songs of the main set. New Monster Avenue was first. He made a very funny comment that I can’t for the life of me remember RE: the song being about moving into a new neighbourhood and being wary of the neighbours.
Half Dead as a song, for me, was a bit disappointing lyrically (we’re talking on a Mountain Goats scale, obviously) and not really strong enough for a single. I’m always kinda disappointed that it gets all the radio play when tracks like If You See Light and In Corolla don’t really see the light of radio day. Still, live, with Vanderslice and Hughes fully kicking ass, this song was awesome. And really, it was hard for the crowd to not be completely into it when it was plain as day they were all having such a good time.
See America Right is one beast of a song. Ben commented that they played it in Perth, and I thought they might pull it out again in Sydney, but I wasn’t sure how it would go over without the drums. Holy moly though – it whipped the crowd up to a point of delirious and the three guitars were more than enough to give it the grunt it needed.
Perfect way to end a set like that? This Year. Holy hell – I know that it’s the song everyone knows, and I know that it’s the song with the most easily-relatable lyrical hook there ever was, but I don’t care. We all sang along like we were in some sort of feverish worship and it was like some massive therapy session – we’re gonna make it through this year if it kills us. And how! The song grew in stature right till it hit the point of launching into the last chorus – JD yells ‘sing it!’ and the whole crowd rises with ‘there will be feasting, and dancing, IN JERUSULEM NEXT YEEEEEEAR’. My heart might have burst right on that very spot.
The call for encore was emphatic. They step out and they both, fairly emotionally, thank the crowd. JD does not pick up his guitar – instead Peter begins with some very cool, low key base. They start the second encore with a Nothing Painted Blue cover Houseguest. This is a darkly funny song about stalking, and JD carries it off with aplomb. He then picks up his guitar and they play the opening chords of Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton. This song was one I hadn’t seen live before and was number 1 on my wishlist for that evening, so I cheered like a crazy person when I recognized the chord progression. I shouted out, with the other crazyfanpeople, HAIL SATAN! at the top of my lungs. Three times. With a good HAIL HAIL right thereafter. Cleanses the soul it does.
The last song of first encore was a surprise. I was fully expecting No Children, firstly because every MF with lungs was screaming it out in the latter half of the set, and secondly because rarely does he leave a set list without it. Still, when he started playing Palmcorder Yajna the crowd forgot about what he WASN’T playing and wholeheartedly vocally got behind the headstones climbing up the hills. The little story before the song was funny too – his little anecdotes about the songs are usually one of the best parts of their gigs.
The cheering when JD and Peter left the stage was really staggering. The whole place was reverberating. I’ve never actually heard of the Goats doing two encores. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but I was fully expecting, after the first encore, for the house lights to go up. Thankfully though they didn’t, and the crowd kept cheering and cheering. Not once did the intensity of the cheering diminish, and not only that, it seemed to intensify. At one point the whole crowd was clapping in time, increasingly quickly, like Glenn McGrath was running in to the crease on a hat trick. I felt so pleased and strangely proud at that point – the fact that Sydney was turning it on and appreciating this band in this completely over the top way. Anyway, I digress.
Both JD and Hughes were visibly emotional when they returned to the stage. They were astounded and humbled by the response and looked honestly lost for words. JD remarked that they were pretty sure this was the biggest crowd they’d ever headlined (massive cheering at this) and because of that they had been a little nervous. The crowd went completely mad when there was the (now familiar to me) one two three one two three from JD before they both launched into No Children. Every single word was sung to the rafters, and at the end the ‘I hope we die, I HOPE WE ALL DIE!’ from JD was met with resounding cheers. Is there honestly a more catchy or clever or darkly honest song in existence? I doubt it.
The absolute best part of my evening was when they finished with California Song. I fell in love with the song a little while ago when I picked up Sweden – at the time I had the houseguests that wouldn’t leave, so I was spending a lot of time sitting at my laptop with my headphones on. I played that album over and over again, but California Song is the track I kept going back to. The crush turned into obsession when I first heard it live last year at the Annandale gig. When JD mouthed ‘California?’ to Hughes I let out an involuntary squeal like some dizzy 12 year old. The way Hughes plays this song is sublime – he adds so much soul to an already amazing song. The crowd started clicking in time to the bass line and JD delivered the lyrics with so much heart. I got a bit emotional about the whole thing. So. Much. Joy.
Can I just say here now awesome Peter Hughes is? One might think, given the blinding charisma of Mr Darnielle, that he’d fade into the background and become nothing more than a session musician. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both musicians feed off each other and the dynamic live is electric. His guitar gives more than just baseline – it gives melody and soul to the songs. They would literally be half as good without him.
When the band left the stage the crowd directly around me went a bit nuts. One guy behind me had pretty much lost his mind and was just screaming out FUCK, FUCK over and over again, and the girl directly in front of me was crying and hugging her friends. I hugged, and was hugged, by two random strangers on my way out of the room and made eye contact and shared knowing, euphoric smiles with near every person I passed. There was a shared feeling of a very special experience that night – akin to a religious experience for me and something that touched me more than an entry or review in a blog can possibly articulate.
I’ve given it a go though. When I read back on this in some months I hope to hell I remember this feeling – it’s the stuff you get up for in the morning and the reason live music will always, always win for me. Over everything.
(Thanks to Wayne at Oceans Never Listen for posting a set list – come Sunday I couldn’t for the life of me remember the order of the whole middle section and it was driving me bats).