Swedish American Hall, San Francisco, CA

Close to 30 years in, it can be easy to forget that the Mountain Goats used to mostly just be one guy. Now a four-man project, the members who aren’t John Darnielle have grown in importance steadily over the years. Still, roughly a decade’s worth of the band’s music was largely the work of just a lone artist (sometimes joined by Rachel Ware, sometimes by Peter Hughes, who remains the band’s indispensable bassist), and those hoping to hear the really old stuff end up having to travel to one of Darnielle’s solo performances, frequently scattered across the U.S. whenever he feels like offering up bizarre old songs even he barely remembers.

It seems 2020 finds a huge uptick in solo shows from the songwriter, with nearly a dozen on the books for the year so far. The first that were announced late last year were a trio of shows at the minuscule Swedish American Hall in San Francisco, the site of a couple performances that remain legendary to fans of the band. Three nights is a lot of space to fill. Would he play an album front-to-back, like he’d done in 2014 with three of his early cassette releases at a trio of shows at Bottom of the Hill? Would he do a night of unreleased songs? Would he finally trot out the beloved deep cut “Etruscans”? It was anyone’s guess.

As Darnielle revealed early in the first performance, he’d spent as much time thinking about it as his most ravenous fans, and he’d decided that the three shows would each have their own theme. The first night represented “Beginnings”—the first song from Taboo VI, the first song written for last year’s In League with Dragons, the first song Hughes heard him play. In keeping with the theme, he pointedly wore his “street clothes” onstage; his usual blazer and slacks replaced by blue jeans and a plain brown T-shirt, his former stage uniform. He also performed the first segment of the show sitting in a folding chair, a move strange enough that even he commented on the novelty—when deciding if he’d do the whole show like that, he noted that he liked the “rising effect” of going from a folding chair to a piano bench and, finally, to standing.

The second night was the most nebulous, centering around the idea of songs that “don’t play well with others”—one-off tracks, unreleased songs, deep cuts from EPs. Concertgoers seeking rare songs were in for a treat: from the Rian Johnson-inspired “The Ultimate Jedi Who Wastes All the Other Jedi and Eats Their Bones” to the boisterous Devil in the Shortwave nugget “Commandante,” he blasted through huge chunks of songs that haven’t ever been played live, or at least just a small handful of times over the years. The whole tripleheader would proceed this way, but just two songs during the main set exist on proper albums, a fact that Darnielle shared the following night had shocked him when he had actually realized what he’d done. To counteract it, though, he devoted the encore to the hits—if you can call “This Year” and “No Children” hits.

The third, and arguably most introspective, night was centered around the idea of “graduating points”—songs where Darnielle acknowledges that he learned something new or grew as a songwriter in the process of writing it. The setlist seemed almost sadistic in how full it was of gut-wrenching tracks sandwiched between seemingly innocent ones—if you wanted to hear about the unified school district of Chino, California on “Going to Chino” and the meditation on aging told through the lens of Sisters of Mercy’s frontperson moving back home on “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds,” you had to sob through the flawless, heartrending Sunset Tree closer “Pale Green Things” in between the two.

The end result is that the three nights functioned as a Möbius strip-like career-to-date retrospective, with Darnielle telling stories at length in between deep-diving into the songwriting processes of many songs. He’d interrupt songs to address lyrics and delivered a “Song Exploder”-like dissection of how “No Children” came to exist. On the third night, he bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t remember the song that taught him about “relative minors” in songwriting, only to suddenly remember it and deliver an entirely unplanned rendition of “One Fine Day” by Carole King. Essentially, the shows were Darnielle’s version of the equally illuminating Bruce Springsteen one-man show Bruce on Broadway.

Darnielle is clearly in high spirits these days, which means that he is, by his own admission, a little difficult to wrangle at times. Anyone expecting to hear several evenings worth of banter-less songs were in for a shock, but those patient enough to follow him in the act of shining a light on the creative processes behind his music received so much more than concerts; they got firsthand insight into what makes Darnielle such a talented songwriter. On top of this, just three songs were played more than once. All told, he performed 57 different songs, with just “You or Your Memory” bleeding through to each night. The presence of some of them, each seemingly more emotionally devastating than the last, pointed to a John Darnielle in the midst of profound emotional stability: “Blue Jays and Cardinals,” “Pale Green Things, and “You’re in Maya,” as well as “Rescue Breaths” (written for We Shall All Be Healed but was far too personal to release or play until that night). He even played a pair of songs written for his children that he deemed too personal to want recorded. In one other instance, he asked for it to not be shared purely because he wanted us to have a shared secret.

The act of playing three nights to sold-out crowds as a solo artist can be incredibly daunting for any performer, even one as seasoned as Darnielle. He deserves an immense amount of credit for the fact that he was able to not only play those shows, but also keep each one of them fresh and exciting, all the while cleaving as best as possible to the themes of every given night. Last year’s In League with Dragons dealt largely with figures of power aging and changing with time, which dovetails nicely with this level of introspection. He’s never going to be the kind of person to take this type of performance—one where he dissects his own work and creative processes for an audience—on the road, which makes the act of making a pilgrimage to a venue he clearly loves all the more enticing. Sure, getting on a plane for a band you love is a privileged act, but if you can pull it off, you may get a performance that makes the expense feel totally worth it.

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