I never expected to ever hear John Darnielle play a guitar solo, and perhaps, Darnielle isn’t the type of frontman that should take a solo. Still, when there’s an excellent show with powerful emotions all around, sometimes you just need to take a solo, and your audience will eat it up with pleasure. The Mountain Goats’ Brooklyn Steel show on Sunday night was a mutually cathartic experience with occasional fist-pounding admiration and some well-earned John Darnielle shredding.
Ever since Matt Douglas joined the Mountain Goats for Beat the Champ, their live sound has only grown. Having seen the emo-giants The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die play with a brass band the night before and Douglas with the Mountain Goats, I’ve come to the conclusion that every band should add brass instruments to their line-up. The songs from Goths would lack their complete feeling, and the added textures help to build the old songs into more interesting additions to the Mountain Goats’ repertoire. On a purely instrumental level, the Mountain Goats were a machine. Darnielle showed off how much better he’d gotten as a guitarist, by playing a few solos on his Gibson Explorer. Peter Hughes held down the low end while gracing the New York audience with some fluid stage presence. Also, Jon Wurster is a machine, and there are few other drummers in rock music today that could rival him.
For the first few dates of this tour the Mountain Goats have stuck to a relatively similar setlist, sometimes mixing up the encore and Darnielle mixing things up for his solo-set. The beginning of the set mostly followed the same feeling of the first few dates, but following “Until I Am Whole,” Darnielle announced, “Hold on for one moment, we just need to do some staging, but it’ll be worth it.” Darnielle told all of us about reading about the historic Batcave venue in London, followed by the hat trick of “Rain in Soho,” a cover of Sisters of Mercy’s “Lucretia My Reflection,” and Darnielle’s ode to The Sisters of Mercy’s frontman “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds.” While “Andrew Eldritch” was one of the weaker cuts from Goths, it was certainly a joy to see the crowd bopping along with it right after “Lucretia.”
Darnielle’s solo set was an easy highlight for the evening. He kicked things off with “Autoclave,” a song that’s easy to pour emotions into when you haven’t had the most luck in your love-life. Darnielle’s upper-register is piercing throughout the third-verse, and it sets the mood perfectly as he begins, “I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls…” After tuning, Darnielle promised a song about one of his infamous doomed couples. “This people really thought they had a chance, but I took it away from them,” Darnielle warned before playing the beautiful “Moon Over Goldsboro.” This is the type of song that only a fanbase as loyal as the Mountain Goats’ could watch in a live setting. It’s such a quiet, wonderful song, and having an audience with paralyzing attention gives it all it demands. Darnielle could sense this as he introduced the unreleased “Poltergeist” with “Wow, you guys are really down with the dark ones tonight.” While most audiences rely on familiarity to enjoy a show, the Mountain Goats are so lyrically forward that you can hear a new song for the first time at a show, and leave with a new favorite song. Even though “Poltergeist” is unreleased, it’s unbelievable catchiness, and resentful lyrics made it a crowd favorite.
The rest of the set was filled with Mountain Goats’ standards that are hard not to eat up. The dance-rhythm of “Shelved” is an easy way to set motion into the room, with Wurster and Hughes locking into a machine-like groove. “Harlem Roulette” sees the band at their tightest on a simple song. “The Young Thousands” was triumphant, as always. More pleasant surprises came as the band returned for their encore. The only Beat the Champ track of the night was the theatrical “Southwestern Territory,” which really gave Douglas a nice area to show off his saxophone skills. The ensuing double-header of “Up the Wolves” and “This Year” were especially crowd-pleasing in light of the terrible political climate and the masses of sexual abuse allegations that have come forward in the past few weeks.
Darnielle exited the stage briefly, but once he returned, he gestured to the band that they’d play two more songs. “Spent Gladiator 2” always provides a tense but enjoyable moment as Darnielle professorial wanders around the stage with his microphone. “Spent Gladiator 2” always feels like it’s right on the edge of becoming something bigger, but Darnielle only breaks the tension at the end as his high-pitched screams come to remind the crowd to “stay alive.” Still, this was a special show, as Darnielle told the audience multiple times onstage (and later on Twitter), and he closed the show with a song that wallops all the emotions from the previous two hours into three minutes-“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” It’s a rarity to hear “Denton” live these days, but when it’s played, it is a damn good night. The crowd was filled of dorky, cathartic hipsters screaming, “Hail Satan,” while tossing up the devil horns. It’s a moment of community where everyone belongs to both celebrate a little band of two young men from Denton, Texas, while also celebrating what we all see in the music of a little band from Durham, North Carolina.