Review by Bokonon
At one point last Thursday, while John Darnielle was downstroking “Island Garden Song” like a misplaced Johnny Ramone at the Bitter End, my boy — now 20 and discernibly taller than me — leaned over and said, “Dad, this is the song that made we want to play acoustic guitar.”
If that’s not a father-and-son moment, I don’t know what is. Thank you, Mr. Darnielle.
The occasion was a jam-packed Mountain Goats show at Club Helsinki in Hudson. On the way in the side door, gauging the hipster beard-and-hat action, the boy grimaced that maybe he’d made the wrong call in suggesting the show, but he recanted on that as soon as he was sitting down to strip steak, a sexy side-of-the-stage seat and hobnobbing like he was the freakin’ mayor.
Erin McKeown was up first. I can fit what I know of the Mountain Goats in a sock. A baby sock. But I’ve seen McKeown a bunch of times, and she has blossomed into a seasoned entertainer as well as a smart songwriter. She played the crowd like her Gretsch, guiding its sing-alongs, probing its passions. Jesus, good stuff, she.
Darnielle is so many things. Jonathan Richman. A mess. A fallen priest. Robert Pollard. An open mic casualty.
But somehow he knits the things together in a way that makes sense. Fucked up sense, yessiree, but sense.
The vintage Harmony guitar feels forced. Cuteness for cuteness’ sake. But its dead lo-fi sound fits the urgency of Darnielle’s songs, which feel breathless even when they’re slow. That same garage-sale plunk contrasts well with his pale, reedy voice, all teenage angst in a grown man’s body. If that last
description makes you a little uncomfortable, you’re listening to the Mountain Goats.
But over time, say the course of a concert at Club Helsinki, those tunes wiggle in. Daniel Johnston. Skip Spence. A half-empty bottle of pills.
“Dance Music” had the bipolar edge the Beach Boys could never commit to. “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” offered revenge as even more teen angst.
McKeown joined Darnielle for a duo reading of her “You, Sailor,” and the sideshow gospel she’d mustered for her own set wormed its way back into the evening air. She was the pretty girl Darnielle could never have — with electric guitar.
If there was a defining moment, it came with “A Shot in the Dark,” not with “Wild Sage” or “Maybe Sprout Wings.” Yes, Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark.” No irony. Just solid piano playing (why he bangs on that box with ivory skills such as his, no one knows), earnest singing and the ache of a nearly 50-year-old Sabbath freak (he wrote the book for god’s sake) singing for the bright-eyed young girls in the front row.
For just a minute, they stopped singing along to every word he sang, confused, maybe even a little worried that they’d lost him. “A Shot In The Dark.” Beautiful.
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SET LIST
Song for Black Sabbath’s Second North American Tour
The Young Thousands
Maybe Sprout Wings
Island Garden Song
Song for the Julian Calendar
Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace
Shot in the Dark (Ozzy Osbourne)
Fall of the Star High School Running Back
Twin Human Highway Flares (with Erin McKeown)
You, Sailor (Erin McKeown) (with Erin McKeown)
No Children (with Erin McKeown)
Love Love Love
The Recognition Scene
Jay Gould’s Daughter
Up the Wolves