Review: A Well Spent Evening with the Mountain Goats and Will Sheff

I think no matter how you try to measure it, the Mountains Goats’ success over the past few decades is undeniable. Originally the solo project of John Darnielle, the Mountain Goats’ history is highlighted by astounding albums (The Sunset Tree, All Eternals Deck, and Beat the Champ being personal faves in a list of 20 full length albums) made with some incredible collaborators (including John Vanderslice, Kaki King, and Annie Clark just to name a few). But recently the prolific band (currently consisting of Darnielle, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes ,and Matt Douglas) with an already huge and diehard fanbase was met with a surge in popularity during the midst of the pandemic. Their song “No Children” became one of those hit Tiktok songs that users could express themselves with, doing interpretive dance or skits to the song’s bitter ending chorus.

So when news broke of a three-night stint at Thalia Hall it was not surprising. The Mountain Goats’ 30-year history, their consistent output of incredible work, and this new resurgence demanded that three nights of concerts. Add to that Will Sheff opening each one of the shows and you have the recipe for an evening of songwriting mastery.

Will Sheff – Photo by Julian Ramirez

While I perused the merch table I constantly overheard people coming to the realization that the opener Will Sheff was the mind behind Okkervil River. Even I who was well aware of Sheff’s opening status got a twinge of excitement when I saw the memorable album covers strewn across the table. And once he came out, standing alone on the wide Thalia Hall stage, I was all the more enthusiastic about his set. Sheff’s incredible songwriting was on full display as he played guitar and at one point busted out a harmonica. The one-man band delighted the crowd with a nice mix of tunes but I can’t deny being most excited for songs like “Plus Ones” that hit home the hardest.

After the small technical difficulty, Sheff rebounded wonderfully. His sound became much fuller with added effects as he delivered with a one-two punch of a brand new song followed by the incredibly recognizable track “Unless It Kicks.” His guitar became more raw and his voice matched it, letting the song revel in its energetic core.

The Mountain Goats followed that up with a career-spanning jam that certainly satisfied new and old fans alike. John Darnielle, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes and Matt Douglas emerged to a roaring crowd. While the first chunk of the set definitely gave props to their modern output with “Aulon Rain” off of Songs for Pierre Chuvin starting off the show followed by Goth, In League with Dragons, Beat the Champ, and Getting into Knives tracks. It’s wholly welcome as every song hit the crowd. “We Do It Different on the West Coast” and its line “I heard some good things from some friends about Chicago” leading the crowd to cheer as loudly as they would throughout the night. The sax solo on that and “Younger” burst with joyful vibes. “Minnesota” was the sole older track and really stood out with its gentler sound.

Fans of the earlier output got their due as the band left the stage, letting Darnielle serenade the crowd with “Absolute Lithops Effect” and “Grendel’s Mother” sandwiching the newish “Night Light.” This little section of the show really showed that whether it’s with his songs, novels, or stage banter; Darnielle is a storyteller through and through. Between songs he would take the audience on these wonderful little tangents, setting up jokes for later and giving us a general sense of everything that has made the Mountain Goats who they are. Stories of Darnielle’s parents’ divorce in his youth and subsequent encounters with religion influenced the rest of the set by introducing a few songs with the same indoctrinating lilt as pastors would. He even toyed with the crowd who started to clap along with a song. “I can’t recommend you do that” he joked. “You’ll fall out of tune and you’ll feel depressed.”

Once the rest of the band returned it felt like a race to the finish as song after song washed over the crowd. “The band we mention in this song used it as their intro song once,” noted Darnielle with the biggest and happiest of grins as he started “Abandoned Flesh.” “Prowl Great Cain” was the one track from All Eternals Deck (I was hopelessly wanting “High Hawk Season”) and Getting Into Knives‘ title track had the crowd captivated. Their proper set finished with “This Year,” a song that carries so much weight and seemingly gets new life breathed into it every passing year. “I’m gonna make it, through this year if it kills me!” sings Darnielle along with the crowd who are yelling the cathartic words out at the top of their lungs.

As the band came back for the encore and the show started its inevitable end, so came the time that I figured many in the crowd had been waiting for. Darnielle prefaces the final song with a story of a well known but unnamed Chicago celebrity reaching out to work with him on a new line of greeting cards. Darnielle jokes “that’s not something I do” before introducing that last song with that same cadence he mentioned of religious folks before: “But I do have a song with a refrain that has a greeting card quality.” “No Children” capped off the night and while the response was strong it wasn’t the TikTok fandom level I was anticipating. Instead it was with the same fervor as “This Year,” “Choked out,” “Getting into Knives” and countless other songs in the night. While “No Children” may have lit another fire in the Mountain Goats’ fanbase, the song and the band have been around long enough that it’s a mere spark in their monumental presence. “I am drowning / There is no sign of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand / And I hope you die / I hope we both die,” sang Darnielle, just 20 years since the song first came out. The angry ode to divorce languishes in its sour lyrics while the instrumentals’ chipper attitude filled Thalia Hall. No matter if it was the newfound fans or the aging ones like me, we were happy to be sent off with such an iconic song.

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All photos by Julian Ramirez

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Julian Ramirez