That’s an oddly specific title, and I should really explain — especially considering I had the title in mind as I was coming up with the idea, or rather, the idea is the headline. Either way, I’d like to elaborate.
I’m not terribly familiar with The Mountain Goats. My girlfriend got me into them, and I’ve been intermittent about my enthusiasm about them, seeing as I am averse to most things folk, or quirky, or particularly attached to having emotions come before all else. Still, I adore The Sunset Tree and their latest, Transcendental Youth, was among my favorite records last year, certainly in the top ten. I saw them live for the first time before I knew anything beyond the ‘big’ songs (“No Children,” This Year,” “Love Love Love,” as most people have told me) in Boston at the House of Blues, simply because I knew my girlfriend was into them. After that, I’ve been enthusiastic about getting into the band further, because they put on a terrific live show. It was with this in mind that my girlfriend and I planned to see them at the Church on the Green in New Haven, CT. But unfortunately, my better half came down with an illness, so I went alone (well, with a last-minute friend who was willing to tag, but had no real inclination to see this or any other band, really) up to New Haven to see John Darnielle and Peter Hughes rep the full band in a Protestant Church. And short of a week later, I’ve come to realize just how special this show truly was, and not just for it’s immediate uniqueness (after the jump, I’ll indulge), but because it may have been the indie rock show to which all others SHOULD be judged.
Alone, in the rain, and in a place no Jewish boy should ever set foot without proper invitation, I determined that the Mountain Goats had put on the best alternative/indie show, I’ve ever seen.
After the jump, details and what have you, about the things you do for love, love, love.
This was a packed church, warm and humid on a summer Friday night. There were no special candles lit, or anyone in particularly fancy dress. In fact, in the balcony seats, the ‘freak-out-the-norms’ gays and lesbians were in full force — where else could kids like these explore their sexuality in a church and get away with it? — in as much there was kids like me, interested in a band who would be playing in a church. I’ve learned from my fellow blogger Sarah, that holy places do not make for great rock venues. As soon as the Mountain Goats took the stage — this day represented by John Darnielle and Peter Hughes, missing drummer Jon Wurster and the full horn section that accompanied the band the last time I saw them — this was apparent. Bass is a very unfriendly sound to reverb naturally, so electrified, it only muddied everything. But maybe that made sense for a predominantly acoustic set, intimate as all get out, in a venue so hot, church volunteers would routinely — almost ritualistically — open the windows on the top floor, to cool down the balcony kids.
Once those windows were opened, it had dawned at me that it was a perfect place to see the Mountain Goats, as imperfect as the acoustics were for the music itself. On this particular night, the remnants of a tropical storm passed through the Tri-State area in full force, creating mud outside, and a driving, droning rhythm to accompany the band, tonight, minus a drummer. It proved key to the piano-based part of the set, which included songs like “1 Samuel 15:23” (“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king,” for those of you unfamiliar with your Psalms), and the follow up, “Deuteronomy 2:10.” This pairing alone may have been ironic service to the idea of playing in a church, yet it provided an excellent one-two punch, as the the open windows not only provided a cool breeze to the stuffy church, but the falling rain outside played to John Darnielle’s fine-tuned sense of mood and atmosphere. It comes across in his records, and it the point was driven home here.
But perhaps best of all, the intimacy of the venue, on the one hand, allowed John to open up to the crowd and go on for long intermissions of jokes and stories behind key songs. Just as valuable as he is as a poetic, image-driven songwriter, he is a terrific, witty raconteur that almost made it worth the price of admission to hear him tell stories. I sincerely hope he writes a book and does speaking engagements some day.
But on the other hand, the smallness of the open aired church meant it was possible to hear every single request shouted out from any pew. Many of them were obvious hits, a few impressive dives into the deep end of the catalog, not one of them honored. It kept on for what seemed like for any moment John didn’t have a story or a joke to tell, there’d be shouts for this song or that, until the inevitable “Freebird” comes flying in from the balcony. It stopped the band for a brief moment before John continued to deliver a growl at how unfunny that joke truly is — a moment that later fueled a five-minute speech about why shouting “Freebird” is not only unfunny and played out, but flat out rude. It was an excellent point, that I wish I had the ability to capture on film and share here, because it was such a great point that I would only hope that anyone even thinking of shouting it out at a concert — whether it’s a local show, or a small venue, or even a major arena — would be gobsmacked with just how awful they are in that moment.
Ultimately, the intimacy of the show provided a showcase for just how powerful this band is, not just in Darnielle’s songwriting prowess, but in the fact that stripped down to the barest element of a guitar and bass, or a piano and bass, these songs still have a lot of muscle when it comes to displaying their fascinating arrangements and melodies, and all thanks to the Mountain Goats as performers. Perfect case in point: At the Boston show last October, “Cry for Judas” was not only the full band, plus a horn section, but here, was reduced to just guitar and bass. Maybe it was the heavy reverb of the church walls, but it sounded just as full and perfect here, even without the horns and diversity of color that they add. Instead, who would need a drummer when you got the rain; and who needs a backing band when you have a Protestant church full of people screaming “Hail Satan!” by the end of the night.
Hail, hail, Satan.