By Hollister Dixon
A few songs into Sunday’s Mountain Goats show at the Crystal Ballroom, frontman John Darnielle told a story about going back to his old apartment, and finding a mark he’d left on the door when he lived in it decades earlier. In the hands of a lesser artist, this might seem like an innocuous thing to sing about – but Darnielle turned the experience of turning his return to his 13th and Taylor apartment into a song – “We Shall All Be Healed”, a song which was sadly left off the album of the same name – about the simple joys of making it out of a horrible situation alive: “Stared down demons, came back breathing.”
It’s easy to forget, but Darnielle’s Portland roots go deep – We Shall All Be Healed was a semi-fictional account of his time in the city, and he talked a lot throughout the show about people he’d known in our town, going as far as to dedicate Transcendental Youth‘s “Spent Gladiator 2” to those that were lost to the same foul drugs he sung about on Healed. This was my second Mountain Goats performance, and while the first one felt like a great show, this one felt like I was getting to watch a performer, at long last, come home. Darnielle is a typically happy performer – which has always worked perfectly against his typically depressing fare (he made an album called Get Lonely, for god’s sake) – but his energy felt electric on that stage.
The newest album, Goths, isn’t an amazing record. It is packed with exactly the kind of great, witty, aware songwriting that you’ve come to expect from a Mountain Goats album. It’s the very first album that features absolutely no guitar (bass is acceptable – this an album about goths, after all), but most every song from the album they played was given a guitar-based live treatment – a move which truly elevated the songs past where they were. Despite this being an album promotion tour, and thus being heavy on Goths songs, each new song played felt like an old friend that was being trotted out for the excited fanbase. Call it having the right energy, call it having the right crowd, call it being a statesman of lyrically-rich indie folk rock – somehow each of the songs just worked.
“I’d never want to be a Mountain Goats completist,” Spectrum Culture’s Dave Harris said to me a day after the show. I’m with him on this one; there’s just one thing on my Discogs wish list, and it’s the tour-only Come, Come to the Sunset Tree, which rarely dips below $200. Mountain Goats fans are a rabid, obsessive, almost religiously fervorous lot, and the sold-out crowd for that show illustrated all of the best parts of that. When Darnielle needed the crowd to shout, we shouted, and when he needed it to be silent enough that you could hear a pin drop, we sat with baited breath. Even during “Spent Gladiator 2”, when he dropped his mic to allow only his shout carry his words across the ballroom, the faithful helped carry the message to everyone. There’s a lot of magic in that.