As a young child growing up in southern California, John Darnielle was a victim of serious physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his step-father. Naturally, he turned to drugs and dysfunction but luckily also to music, and he eventually formed the band, “The Mountain Goats” in Portland, Oregon. He survived by developing his own style of trauma-art, and to date has written and recorded fifteen studio albums with the band; this is impressive in itself, but on top of that he also recently published his debut novel which was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. As Ian Dury said “there ain’t half been some clever bastards”, but more importantly, Darnielle has evolved into a wonderful role model for others who have crawled out of adolescence barely alive. A lot of his lyrics explore themes of domestic violence, family dysfunction, self-destructive behavior but also love, hope and friendship. He is without doubt a substantive singer-songwriter and the driving force of the band. His band-mates appear to me to be more like talented session musicians than fully fledged, creative members of the unit; surely the imagery and themes, the characters and language of the songs are developed by Darnielle alone.
The current tour brought the band to the “Babeville” music venue, a large former Methodist church with a distinctive soaring steeple, situated in Buffalo’s historic district, and constructed between 1871 and 1874 out of locally quarried sandstone underneath a roof made from Vermont slate. In the mid to late 1990s, Buffalo native Ani DeFranco saved the church from desolation, and invested in its survival and transformation. It is now a celebrated and hugely impressive music venue with natural acoustics, the original wood and stone interior, a basement bar and a geo-thermal heating system that minimalises the building’s reliance on fossil fuels.
From the dark and rainy Buffalo streets, I ascended a handful of stone steps into a wide and high wooden vestibule where staff inspected tickets, and where the small merchandise table sold CDs and vinyl records of the band together with t-shirts, stickers, badges and artistic posters. Leaving this narrow entrance and stepping through more large wooden doors, I entered what used to be the church’s nave. Facing me from across the large open space full of white plastic chairs and where the altar had probably been placed, the venue’s stage is in front of a back wall with high arched stone columns that rise all the way to an arched ceiling that itself is patterned with more stone-work, white wooden beams, hanging lamps, and two enormous hanging speakers that dangle seemingly securely over the audience threatening instant death if they ever got loose. Changing stage lights shine on the vertical columns; red and purple slowly become orange and green and then eventually yellow and blue. To my immediate left and right are impressive, twirling wooden staircases that lead to the second floor which is actually only about eight feet up. The left-sided and right-sided second floors are narrow and they hug the sides of the church; wood paneling is attached to the sides of these upper rows and is cool to examine from below. On each side of the church, rising from the ground and behind the upper floors are tall but narrow, patterned windows that only just stop short of the wooden beams that support the roof and famous steeple of the Buffalo skyline.
The support artist, a young virtuoso on acoustic guitar had already begun. His blending of catchy melodies and complex plucking made me think of Leo Kottke. Between songs he was softly spoken and the crowd was quiet, respectful and appropriately in awe. For some reason, he wasn’t what I would have expected from a support act to “The Mountain Goats”, but then I’ve always sensed that the best support acts should be wholly different to the main attraction; anything too similar in style takes away from the headline act’s originality, making it seem as if they’ve droned on for hours. This guy was appropriately building our anticipation about the night’s entertainment ahead and holding our attention at the same time.
As I sat listening, I thought about “The Mountain Goats”. They’d apparently grown in popularity around the beginning of the 2000s and the age of the crowd seemed to confirm this. Looking around, I saw a lot of early to mid thirty-somethings; there were men sporting beards of various descriptions and plaid shirts of various designs accompanied by slender, well dressed women. Some of the couples I stood next to at the back were smiling at and holding each other. Throughout the evening they sang along and gazed into each other’s eyes. I stood alone, guzzling lager and searching for something smart and insightful to write down about ecclesiastical aesthetics.
When the support act finished, there was a brief interlude followed by an orchestral introduction played over the PA consisting of piano, violins, dramatic cymbals and a chorus of earnest women singers. After two or three minutes of this, “The Goats” appeared smiling and waving and they confidently took their positions on stage. The drummer and bass player wore suits and the multi-instrumentalist who would go on to play guitar, piano, oboe, saxophone and trumpet was also impeccably turned out. They looked less like scruffy goat-herders and more like a band in a European beer TV commercial appealing to sophisticates of a certain refinement. Darnielle however, with reddish trousers, elbow patches, glasses, a few extra pounds, a dark brown mop of hair, and a quick eye for mischief looked more like a jovial professor. He waved happily, greeted the crowd clutching his acoustic guitar and paced the front of the stage smiling at everyone while the rest of the band stood motionless awaiting his signal.
They quickly started out with “Woke Up New” a reflective song about a person’s feelings and behaviours on their first post-relationship day. Darnielle sang softly, almost inaudibly but he strummed his acoustic guitar quickly above a catchy repetitive bass line and soft, subtle drums; he kept pushing himself to maintain the tempo and rhythm, he often jerked his head up sharply and exhaled as a way of releasing the tension that built up in his body. At the end of the song, loud applause filled the room until slow, haunting piano notes above slow guitar introduced “Until I am Whole”, from their 2012 album, “Transcendental Youth”. He then introduced “Damn these Vampires” as a song about so-called friends who “drain you of your energy……because…… they need it”, and from the audience-members there was much chuckling, nodding of heads, mumbling and general agreement that yes, they very well had indeed met legions of these blood-suckers over the years much to their regret and chagrin, and boy they sure are glad they no longer have those people to put up with, because they’ve finally worked out, now that they’re older and wiser, who their healthy relationships are with and how to end the unhealthy ones. Others looked straight ahead and waited for the song.
After an Ani DiFranco cover, the band played the first song of the evening from their latest album, “Beat the Champ”. It’s called “Werewolf Gimmick” and it’s a frenzied piece that frightens the shit out of you for its horror and its panic-strewn vocals. Darnielle seems to return time and again to wolves. Either I’m not insightful enough to work out who the wolf is or he is deliberately vague or both, but my theory is that the wolf is either the monster who violently attacks the defenseless, or the mother she-wolf protector of the cubs, or a reference to unsupervised adolescents who ravage and forage their way to survival. Or, maybe the wolf is all of the above. The song’s abrupt end brought immediate, enthusiastic applause and was the signal for his band-mates to depart the stage, leaving a solitary Darnielle to play a handful of songs, first on the acoustic guitar and then on the piano.
During one of these songs I think he walked into the crowd but I was at the back and on the other side so I couldn’t be sure. His solo set was slow and quiet and the songs didn’t mean much to me. In fact I went to grab a beer downstairs. Some people seemed to have been down there for ages and they spoke noisily which really says a lot for the natural acoustics of the place because you couldn’t hear any of it from upstairs. There was also a live audio feed from the stage being played for the benefit of the patrons. I grabbed my beer and left the crypt dwellers to their conversations.
Soon, Darnielle’s smart young pals returned to the stage and the band re-opened with “Southwestern Territory”, the first song from “Beat the Champ”. In the introduction Darnielle told us about the sport of wrestling and its regional dynamics, the different geographic markets of the United States in decades gone by and their alignment to the local media networks. By concentrating on his native California and the wider U.S south-west, he painted a picture of strong regional cultures and identities that he believes are fading from the public consciousness. Now, the culture of the country is becoming homogenized. The ‘champ’ of the album is his hero, Chavo Guerrero, a wrestler who was apparently a household name in the south west but an unknown outside it. It seems that watching wrestling had been an obsession of Darnielle’s and that he wholly identified with its supposed heroes and villains, its excitement and rough justice. Probably, these heroes of his, like Guerrero, helped distract him from his daily real-life struggles. And by telling us about his home’s multi-cultural history and its multi-historical culture he shares with us parts of the rich community that saved him from torment and perhaps death; and all the time a gorgeous oboe dances over the top of the by now familiar rhythm section.
At one point in the evening he started banging on about Calvinists which is unsurprising given that one of their albums (‘The Mountain Goats’ not ‘the Calvinists’) contains nothing but songs named after books, chapters and verses from the Bible such as “Genesis 30:3”. He lectured about the Calvinists’ fundamental belief that there are limits on grace, which is something I did not know or understand. Now I do know a little bit about the origin of the Calvinists and their belief in pre-destination but nothing about their connection with grace and if I did know anything about religious grace in general it’s long been forgotten and I suspect that most of the band’s fans know nothing about it either and care even less. This introduction was to a song called “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace” which he then explained was about a man who tortured someone in a desert, didn’t repent and was never caught or convicted. Therefore, there was no punishment for his actions. It was a piano based, slow, atmospheric number, accompanied by a saxophone and the rhythm section, eventually reaching a climax with a series of harrowing bass drum booms that slowed to a halt like a final heart-beat. Presumably the inhuman torture ended up taking the life of its victim, and all I could write in my note-book was “I really don’t like this song”. I mean I’m all for examining faith and religion but surely a song about someone being tortured alone doesn’t really appeal to anyone except deranged sadists or fundamentalist religionists. Perhaps his point is that the Calvinists believe that there are a certain number of people who have been pre-chosen to enter the kingdom of heaven and that there is nothing a chosen person can do to ruin his chances of making it to the after-world, not even if he were to cause unspeakable pain to another human being, which of course would be complete horse-shit and really unfair, and render pointless a person’s decision to be kind to or assist other people which is what all religions supposedly espouse. Maybe I got there after all. Thanks Darnielle, you made me think and on a work night at 11 PM no less. However, I’m still not sure where the grace comes in.
Thankfully this complete bummer of a song was followed by the highly dramatic, fast paced “Oceanographer’s Choice”, a song so simultaneously groovy and tense that I thought the church windows were going to shatter, and they played it even better than its studio recording on the 2002 album “Tallahassee”. “The Mountain Goats” then left the stage and returned for an encore which began with the beautiful and clever “Love, love, love”, and then followed by “No Children”, which is a real fans’ favourite and which is about an acrimonious end to a relationship; the long-term fans traditionally sing the lyrics out loud together word for word, but it’s also highly petty and spiteful, and I think anybody would be as embarrassed as hell if they had to sing it anywhere other than at a “The Mountain Goats” show. However, I’m sure the truth is that he was just being completely honest about his feelings at the time of the split and it does kind of grow on you the more you listen to it. That wily wolf made a final appearance in “Up the Wolves”. It was followed by the triumphant “This Year” and the band headed off for what we thought was the end of the evening.
But audaciously they returned for a second encore when half the crowd was already out the door and thinking about work tomorrow, and it got quite surreal. They played “Spent Gladiator 2”, which is an eerie song at the best of times, but tonight for some reason they played it very slowly and Darnielle stood up tall in the middle of the stage without a guitar, and he seemed to be getting taller with each verse like a deranged Saruman summoning his vile warriors for one final violent assault on the alliance and it was almost as if we were there against our will being held captive by a strange and dangerous man.
But although I enjoy being flippant and critical of Darnielle, I am convinced that he is a musical and poetic genius. For one thing he sang over twenty songs, most of which have a lot of lyrics to remember. Is it going too far to compare him to Dylan for this generation, whatever ‘this generation’ may be? I can’t pretend to understand the poetic importance of Dylan but I do adore the beauty of some of Darnielle’s lyrics and their relationship to our lives. He can feel vindictive towards people but he also celebrates kindness and generosity. Mostly he tells stories that are about him and about people he knows; some of these people he loves, others disappear from view into an unknown orb of human mass. Like all of us, he’s had intense relationships with people and then he’s never seen them again and he wonders where they are, and whether they are even alive. Perhaps that was why he seemed reluctant to let us leave tonight. Perhaps he didn’t want to say good-bye again.
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