(Photo: Bradley’s Almanac)
Only at a Mountain Goats show do you see people working together on crossword puzzles on their phones while waiting for the band to go on. It was hotter than hell inside Portland’s Wonder Ballroom, a capacity crowd not helping the stuffiness. It is no surprise that John Darnielle’s literate brand of indie rock is popular in Portland, whether it be the aging hipster with horn-rimmed glasses or the schlubby guy clutching the vinyl he bought at the merch table to his chest.
Up first were North Carolina outfit Loamlands. Fronted by Kym Register, the band warmed up the crowd with its easy alt-country sound. Playing songs from their debut EP Some Kind of Light, Loamlands definitely showed promise, holding the crowd’s interest with music not unlike what Lucinda Williams has put out the past few decades. They kicked off their 50 minute set with “Another Reason,” an upbeat rocker that could easily find a home on the radio with its grooving rhythm and catchy chorus.
With a voice that mixes honey with sharpness, Register was a captivating presence, especially during the faster numbers. Her banter felt underwhelming, especially when she seemed surprised that folks in the crowd knew where North Carolina is located. For an opening act, Loamlands superseded any expectations, but they will need more than generic slow songs to get ahead of the pack.
After a brief wait, Darnielle and bassist Peter Hughes took the stage for the so-called Twin Inhuman Highway Fiends tour as a blast of heavy metal on the PA announced their arrival. I’ve noticed that when Darnielle isn’t promoting a new album, he tends to draw deep from his catalog, avoiding the more obvious songs such as “This Year” and “Love Love Love” for more obscure fare such as “Alpha Rats Nest” and “International Small Arms Traffic Blues.”
Darnielle kicked things off with a tender version of “High Hawk Season” (sans the barbershop quartet harmonies). With Hughes on bass, Darnielle spent most of the show strapped to his acoustic guitar, sometimes switching over to the keyboard on stage right. He used the set to air unreleased tunes such as “Steal Smoked Fish” and even debuted a work-in-progress about pro wrestling (one of his obsessions) called “Southwestern Territory.”
Darnielle has amazing control over his voice, alternating from quiet and emotional (“Woke Up New”) to harrowing. At one point, he scolded some loud members of the audience and sang extra quietly, forcing us to lean forward to hear the vocals. As usual, it is amazing how so many fans at a Mountain Goats show know all of Darnielle’s arcane lyrics well enough to sing along.
Two highlights came towards the end of the show. “Up the Wolves,” the only Sunset Tree song of the evening, got the crowd singing and the unreleased “You Were Cool,” a paean to a girl who was picked on during high school, was extremely touching, especially the lyric: “I hope you love your life now/ Like I love mine,” Darnielle’s voice threatening to crack with sentiment.
Deep cuts aside, fans of Tallahassee got to hear a good number of songs from that album, including “No Children,” but Darnielle chose to end with “California Song” from Sweden. Before the song even finished, he bounded into the audience, singing without a microphone, high-fiving and hugging fans. He then vanished backstage, leaving Hughes to finish up the bass line before heading off the stage himself.