It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves
It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side.
-You Were Cool
The El Rey Theater on Wilshire Blvd. in L.A. was the kind of large, ornate venue that you’d expect chamber music to be coursing through. The walls seemed red and lush — could’ve been velvet if I were to get close enough to see properly. Chandeliers hung above the crowd, lit a deep shade of pink by unassuming spotlights hiding in the wings. It didn’t feel like a place where John Darnielle (or JD as he calls himself) of The Mountain Goats would be having the crowd sing “I hope we all die” just a few hours later.
If you are a Mountain Goats fan, you’ll instantly recognize these lyrics. If you’re a neophyte, you might mistake the lyrics “I hope we die” as overly morose, emo even. You may see a screaming throng of people yelling “Hail Satan” at the stage, and want to turn and run. But instead, these songs are some of the band’s most unthreatening, joyous, and uniting.
Before Southwood Plantation Road, Darnielle began talking about drunks, and a few people in the audience yelled “Woo!” Without skipping a beat (impossible for the clever, chatty, and naturally funny frontman), JD said, “Yes, some people say ‘Woo. They’re drunks.’ No. Not ‘Woo!’ Actual drunks: not woo-worthy. Actual drunks: more like ‘Ooo,’” and he mock-cowered in revulsion. He continued with the poise and tone of a stand-up comic joking about airplane food, not a disabling addiction. “They’re dangerous and they look kind of yellow around the eyes! It’s not really a romantic life they’re leading.” Then, right before the music took over, lifting everybody off the ground, he conceded: “Yet somebody needs to document it and jump around about it.” Some of the best Mountain Goats songs come from places of intense bitterness and pain. Which is exactly why those same songs are some of the happiest sounding, the most rousing, like the beat of drums heading into battle, or even better, a rowdy wake after a death. Armor for the soul.
Let’s back up.
The band has come a long way from the sparse shows of ye olden days. On new album All Eternals Deck, Darnielle’s taut vocals and acoustic guitar are accompanied by sweeping Arabesque strings in one song and a Gregorian acapella backup in the next. This lushness has translated nicely to their live performances. The trio, Darnielle (@mountain_goats) on vocals and acoustic guitar, Jon Wurster (@jon_wurster) of Superchunk on drums and Peter Hughes on bass, have expanded to included a keyboardist who fills in nicely for the lack of say, a 12 piece orchestra during Age of Kings. The keys add a lot of depth the show — crafting a spooky bed for the rest of the band or sprinkling a jazzy riff into an established song. Even with the lush backgrounds, Darnielle has always kept his songs spartan, rightly highlighting his vocal performance than instrumental talent. One of the highlights of the show for me was at the end of Family Happiness, where Darnielle sang defiantly, “You can arm me to the teeth. You can’t make me go to war,” then strolled over to the keyboard where he bashed the keys angrily, beautifully, thrusting the song into a deep instrumental jam. He’ll play the keyboard, he’s saying, but he’ll never do it to sound pretty.
Though JD provided an anecdotal intro to nearly every song, he wasn’t very talkative, and he admitted as such. “What’s that Robert Frost line about how when you go back home, they have to take you in?” When I saw him in DC, he had just gotten over a bout of illness, and was feeling extra energetic and thankful for his fans. Back in LA, JD seemed to have a quiet gratitude to be back home, and since many of the songs he played sprang from his experiences growing up in Southern California, they had a special resonance. But I can see why he felt quieter than usual (relaxed and conversational for anyone else). His introduction to Birth of Serpents went “This song is about a young fellow who goes up to Portland, Oregon and gets really into speed. He looks shockingly like me.” JD is more or less a survivor of growing up in Southern California, overcoming drug addiction and domestic violence, and the new album reflects this sense of fateful triumph. The band opened with the steady but haunting Liza Forever Minnelli. “Gentle shadows spilling down the hills up at Mulholland and Ledgwood,” JD sang, fully aware of where we all were.
There were plenty of surprises. No Children started with a long jazzy build up with JD performing a Cohen-like fictional story about watching The Price Is Right with a spouse, and how they both wished the contestants would die a cartoon-gruesome death. Someone yelled This Magic Moment during a cacophony of other requests, and alas, it happened. JD played “You Were Cool” solo, a kind of hard hitting anthem that fits in with the It Gets Better movement, but is not without its share of humor (The lyrics begin, “This is a song with the same four chords I use most of the time,” referring to his tendency toward A, D, C and G). Before California Song, which came during the double (double!) encore. He talked about how he usually said that this was a song about where he’s from, but that seems kind of superfluous here. “Although you treat me badly, I love you madly. You really got a hold on me,” he sang, unclear whether he was talking to the girl in the song, or the place we were in. Then he left the stage, and the band weirdly transitioned into a jazz rendition of Black Water by the Doobie Brothers.
For awhile, I was standing on a little raised staircase near the front. I had a great view of the stage, but also a good view of the crowd. At the DC show, my sister and I joked that the audience was made up of a lot of little John Darnielles (nerdy lookin guys with black-framed glasses), and the same was true here. I was having trouble enjoying myself. I kept noticing the tall guy next to me looking back and forth at the people around him instead of the stage, the drunk girls that talked all through the concert, the girl that before the concert talked about how she loved his voice because even if he didn’t hit the note correctly, she could just really hear the emotion in it so perfectly and yada yada.
At some point, I lowered myself into the crowd. I was looking up at the band, could no longer see everyone around me. Instead, was a part of everything around me. When the band played The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton, an ode to a couple of teenagers who really worked hard on their music but were told their opinions didn’t matter, I had no problem throwing my fist up at the end and yelling “Hail Satan” with the rest of them. I of course wasn’t worshipping Satan. But I was worshipping being a part of something, surviving, and coming out the other end celebrating with those who survived the same.