by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
I reached into my pocket just prior to entering The Slowdown last night and realized that I’d forgotten to bring my earplugs. No matter, I thought. I’ve seen The Mountain Goats before and had nothing to worry about. After all, John Darnielle is an acoustic balladeer of the best kind; he’s no rock star and he certainly isn’t loud, right?
Well, I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake when the MG’s “pre-music” — the music played just before they entered the stage — was some sort of metal Judas Priest/Slayer extravaganza. I took it as a not-so-subtle form of irony. But I was wrong. These days the Mountain Goats is a full-fledged power trio, something they’ve evolved into since the last time I saw them oh so many years ago, and despite the laid-back acoustic sound of their records. They may be acoustic, but they rock nonetheless, with Darnielle spending most of the evening on an acoustic guitar backed by a thunderous bass/drums rhythm section.
I have three Mountain Goats albums — 2002’s Tallahassee, 2008’s Heretic Pride, and their latest, The Life of the World to Come — along with a split single Darnielle made with Simon Joyner called Why You All So Thief? released in 1994 on Omaha’s own Sing, Eunichs! label. I recognized a lot of songs from Tallahassee, an album he was touring last time I saw him. But this time they were revved up and anthem-like and a lot better than I remembered. In between songs, Darnielle did a Storytellers schtick, with bits about life on the road or what inspired the next song, delivered in the rapid-fire style of a well-seasoned stand-up comic or monologist. Funny stuff. It was the combination of the music and the chatter and the overall vibe among the 300 or so in attendance that made last night’s show a top-tenner (or top-fiver) for the year (so far).
There’s something about the Mountain Goats now that reminds me of The Hold Steady — maybe it’s the way the songs are written or Darnielle’s barking vocals or the story-telling lyrical style.The energy level of their live show certainly rivals The Hold Steady’s. But there are just as many differences as similarities. Darnielle can actually sing. The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn can’t and doesn’t even try. Darnielle mixes his set up well — 20 minutes into last night’s set, the rest of the band left the stage and he asked the crowd if they could handle something slow and sad. He then started singing a pretty, dark tune with the opening line, “They hooked her up to a Fentanyl drip / To mitigate the pain a little bit.” It was “Matthew 25:21” from the latest album, a song that recalls a time when Darnielle broke off from a tour to travel to Santa Barbara to see his mother-in-law before she died of cancer, a song that ends with, “It’s three days later when I get the call / And there’s nobody around to break my fall.” It was a dark, touching moment that helped put the performance into perspective. I heard nothing even remotely close to that at last year’s Hold Steady show at Slowdown — it was just one crash-bash one-note rocker after another sung by a professional auctioneer — and that’s exactly what fans go to a Hold Steady show to see, and why (conceivably) they’re so much more popular than The Mountain Goats. But the fact is, as the years go by, other artists and bands will cover Mountain Goats songs just like they cover Magnetic Fields songs and Neutral Milk Hotel songs and so on. I don’t see that happening with Hold Steady songs, but I could be wrong.
Darnielle and Co. left the stage after about 45 minutes — a fairly short set. When they came back for the encore, the crowd became a mob yelling requests, including one that Darnielle said he hadn’t played in years, but was going to try because it was Omaha and, presumably, we are special. He pulled the rest of the band together in a small side conference, and then started pounding out the chords, yelling the chord names to bassist Peter Hughes because they’d never played the tune together before. The song was “Golden Boy,” a single compiled on 1999’s Ghana, with the catchy line: “There are no pan-Asian supermarkets down in hell / So you can’t buy Golden Boy peanuts.” Who knows why he’s stayed away from that one for so long. Also played in the four-song encore was crowd favorite “No Children” from Tallahassee that featured 200 people singing the touching lines: “I hope you die / I hope you all die.” — what a way to close out the evening.
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Tonight at O’Leaver’s it’s Alive Records band Black Diamond Heavies with Bazooka Shootout and Gyromancer. $5, 9 p.m.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.