“Hi, we’re the Mountain Goats,” John Darnielle stated cheerfully at the beginning of Tuesday’s sold out concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. This is a classic statement made at every single Mountain Goats show, whether the full band is there or not, even if it is simply Darnielle standing solo with a guitar on the stage. In any incarnation, they are always the Mountain Goats. For the 3 sold out nights at Old Town School’s Maurer Hall, it was just John and multi instrumentalist Matt Douglas, the most recent edition to the group, performing new songs and old.
I’ve seen the Mountain Goats 7 times, in a somewhat comical variety of settings. I’ve seen the full band play to an insanely drunk crowd at Wicker Park Fest, I’ve sweated in 90 degree heat watching them at Subterranean in the middle of July, I’ve seen them play for a group of passionate die hard fans practically moshing to Darnielle’s acoustic guitar at The Vic, I’ve even seen a solo John Darnielle at Second City, at a Christmas benefit show where someone offered him 60 dollars to play “Going to Georgia” (he did, it was amazing). And now, for my 8th time seeing the Mountain Goats live, I saw them as a duo at a Maurer Hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a venue more suited for a quiet acoustic performance than Darnielle’s howling stage presence.
The choice of Maurer Hall was made deliberately by Darnielle, stating on the Mountain Goats blog that he had been invited to play a few shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the past and they were amazing, and he wanted to perform there again with Douglas. Though the choice was made purposefully, the venue was almost too small and quiet for a musician like Darnielle. He may be a primarily acoustic musician, but his fans are the most dedicated in the world, and you could see some visibly squirming in their seats with the desire to dance and scream their favorite lyrics. Seeing a show at Maurer is reminiscent of seeing a play or an orchestral concert; while entertaining, it just doesn’t allow for the energy that a Mountain Goats show provides.
Tuesday’s performance, the last of 3 sold out shows at Maurer Hall, was definitely meant for die-hard fans. They played a 21 song set, comprised of mostly older songs, some unreleased, some on rare EPs, some bonus tracks, a few fan favorites. The addition of Douglas on multiple instruments combined with the absence of Jon Wurster’s driving drums and Peter Hughes’ bass lines gave Darnielle’s music an airy, almost jazz like quality, as if watching a performance in a small coffee shop during the beat generation.
Nashville singer songwriter Erin Rae opened the show, with a soulful voice and cathartic lyrics that captivated the audience into complete silence. Her quietly charming stage presence allowed her to connect with the audience, telling stories of her Nashville upbringing and playing guitar while working in a therapist’s office when she was 11. The wistful yet profoundly introspective “Bad Mind” was a standout song, with the audience so silent you could hear a pin drop.
The Mountain Goats took the stage around 9 pm. The show started quietly with “Liza Forever Minelli”, the ending track off of 2011’s All Eternal’s Deck. “Anyone here mentions Hotel California dies before the first line clears his lips,” Darnielle crooned while making a throat cutting motion, to audience laughter. After playing the titular track from Heretic Pride and Tallahassee’s “Have to Explode”, Darnielle began his legendary audience banter, asking the crowd, “What was that game show with the Whammy…?” An audience member shouted “Press your luck!” which helped launch Darnielle into a story about a man from Ohio who cheated the system and was banned from being on the show. The story made for a good transition for “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”, another poignant track from 2002’s Tallahassee. Throughout the set, Darnielle kept up with the audience banter, telling stories about his drug fueled past, song writing, and Ozzy Osbourne.
Midway through the set, Matt Douglas left the stage, with Darnielle playing a few songs solo, switching between guitar and piano. After playing “Sign of the Crow 2”, a b-side from Heretic Pride, Darnielle dedicated “Color in Your Cheeks” from All Hail West Texas to The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, an organization that looks out for the rights and best interests of unaccompanied immigrant children. This song was obviously a huge fan favorite, with the audience barely able to contain themselves in their small church pew style seats. The crowd took it upon themselves to request a few songs as well, with Darnielle laughing as he told them that “those are all guitar songs, I’m sitting at a piano.” After more audience exchanges, in which Darnielle yelled at a someone for requesting “Free Bird” (“don’t be that guy”, he said, to audience laughter and approval), Douglas came back with a gin and tonic for Darnielle, and the duo was together again. The rest of the set fluctuated between older acoustic jams to newer, more introspective numbers. Lakeside View was particularly compelling song, with Darnielle’s powerful piano and Douglas’s robust saxophone radiating throughout Maurer Hall.
New tracks such as “We Do it Different on the West Coast” and “Unicorn Tolerance” brought in some audience excitement, but nowhere near as much energy came when Darnielle performed songs from 2005’s critically acclaimed The Sunset Tree, or songs from pre-full band solo album All Hail West Texas. Members of the audience were visibly excited to hear unreleased tracks and rare b-sides, barely able to contain themselves in their seats when Darnielle announced he was going to play both “New Chevrolet in Flames” and “New Star Song”, two old tracks that are rare to hear played live. Darnielle complimented the audience throughout the show, saying that the audience was the best and even jokingly offering to play 10 shows in a row in Chicago.
They closed out their set with “Up the Wolves”, with Darnielle hilariously headbanging while his deeply personal lyrics emanated throughout the venue. After a swelling applause, they came back out and played a few more fan favorites, including “You or Your Memory” and “This Year”. The encore ended with “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton”, which had the entire sold out crowd of Maurer Hall shouting “Hail Satan” while Darnielle pounded his guitar and stomped his bare feet on stage. The atmosphere in the venue was absurdly amusing, with everyone from angel-headed hipsters to grandmothers in horn rimmed glasses professing their love for the devil. It was an appropriate ending to incongruously amazing performance.
The Mountain Goats will be touring at the end of the summer. Dates and more information can be found at www.mountain-goats.com. You can check out more photos and the full set list below.
Liza Forever Minelli
Have To Explode
Game Shows Touch Our Lives
Song For Black Sabbath’s 2nd North American Tour
Sign of the Crow 2
Color in Your Cheeks
Good Morning to All Vultures
Lakeside View Apartment Suites
We Do It Different On The West Coast
Woke Up New
New Star Song
New Chevrolet in Flames
Up The Wolves
You or Your Memory
Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton
This concert review was written and photographed by guest author and photographer Carissa Coughlin.