John Darnielle is a musician who wants no barrier between him and his fans, both metaphorical and literal.
(Photo: Hollister Dixon)
John Darnielle is a musician who wants no barrier between him and his fans, both metaphorical and literal. When I saw PJ Harvey last month at the Crystal Ballroom, a metal barricade separated the crowd from the stage. There was no such blockade at Darnielle’s show. Fans at the front leaned against the stage, inches away from the action.
It makes sense. Darnielle is a confessional songwriter, unafraid to bare his past issues with drugs and abuse in his music. There is something inclusive about the Mountain Goats and Darnielle’s music. I’ve had friends claim The Sunset Tree has helped them deal with their own issues with abusive parents. Yet, Darnielle’s last two albums have been more concept-based and seemingly less private. Beat the Champ (2015) was a meditation on professional wrestling while new LP Goths is about the inability to fit in. The songs feel less personal in some ways, even if both batches spring from fascinations Darnielle carried during his youth.
I’ve said this before, but a Mountain Goats concert is almost like a cult meeting. So many people in the crowd always seem to know all the words to all of Darnielle’s songs, even the obscure ones, and have no problem singing along with abandon, cocooning the room in a communal vibe.
Darnielle, along with bassist Peter Hughes, drummer Jon Wurster and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, took the stage around nine and played a 23-song, two-hour extravaganza that concentrated heavily on Goths, but also featured numerous fan favorites and deep cuts. Darnielle, wearing a suit without shoes or socks, alternated between playing the guitar and a Rhodes keyboard. Kicking off with new song “Rain in Soho,” the set alternated from rollicking, upbeat numbers such as “In the Craters of the Moon” to more introspective ones like “We Shall All Be Healed,” a song that Darnielle has only played live seven times. The Portland crowd cheered at shout-outs in “Harlem Roulette” and “Birth of Serpents,” songs purposely included to thrill the home crowd.
Darnielle is a garrulous front man who shared stories of his dissolute years as a youngster in Portland. Midway through the set, his band left the stage and Darnielle played a handful of solo songs on the guitar, reaching back to Sweden for “Going to Queens” and responding to this writer’s request for “So Desperate,” a song he claimed was one of his favorites which also stayed in the key of D with “Queens.”
The Mountain Goats change up the setlist each night; at this show, a triptych of Sunset Tree songs (“Broom People,” “Up the Wolves” and “Love Love Love”) worked the crowd into an elevated fervor. Before closing the set with “Heel Turn 2,” Darnielle regaled us with stories about seeing “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at the Memorial Coliseum here when he was a child visiting his dad.
Although Darnielle did play the obligatory “This Year” and “No Children” during the two encores, the crowd shouted along, even if it was the 10th time they had heard them played live. During an intense version of “Spent Gladiator 2” at the end of the first encore, Darnielle walked to the lip of the stage and sang without a microphone, smile beaming, arms stretched, voice leaping out into the cavernous room, telling everyone to come in, come closer, be healed.