The Mountain Goats – Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto
John Darnielle's group say it with flowers at terrific Canadian showing
Words Jazz Monroe
Somebody has just thrown John Darnielle a bunch of flowers. It’s fair to say such gestures are hardly unexpected in the Goats’ neck of the woods. Kissing his munificent disciple’s hand, the middle-aged singer brandishes the bouquet and smiles a smile so broad his curious features become comically enhanced. You fear those bulging eyeballs are about to dislodge the glasses from his nose. “That makes me feel… so very good,” Darnielle grins.
And why shouldn’t he? If the Goats haven’t quite hit the big time of late, then certainly, they’ve crawled far enough from their cult origins that, should need arise, they could at least catch a cab to mid time, and have a peek at the brochures for big time. Still, in many respects it’s puzzling that 1000-odd Mountain Goats fans inhabit this planet — let alone a multi-level concert hall with four bars and pricey booze in plastic cups.
Perhaps that’s because, after nineteen albums of drug dramas, passing failures, lasting fall-outs, amusing mishaps, candid tragedies and dragged-out divorces, the trio’s fans are hard-earned, rather than chased, borrowed or bought. It feels as much like a gang reunion as folk-rock concert; the kind of night where the second biggest cheer goes to Darnielle’s rhetorical request of: “Can I tell you a long story?” (Later, one unspooling tale is abruptly shot down by an impatient fan — “Concert, lads!” “I know… but I’m talking,” Darnielle counters.)
Darnielle’s stage presence is as dramatically versatile as you’d hope of a man who wrote a 33 1/3 book on Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality; jumping and stomping, ping-ponging across stage, the very embodiment of joie de vivre. And of course, to some degree the performance is an act. But still, you imagine if he weren’t musically inclined, Darnielle would nonetheless fulfil some equally, unwaveringly committed role. Like the kind of half-sane scientist that insists always on wearing a stained white overcoat, even while working away from the test tubes on long nights in the office.
But for all the highlights tonight — a renovated rejig of sparse All Hail West Texas fave ‘The Mess Inside’, as well as several brass-accompanied cuts from new LP Transcendental Youth — what most endears is the embrace of abundant stage-chat. Take a sample: “A great thing to do on tour,” Darnielle says, concentrating intently on the back wall, “is to have issues. You won’t need any therapy because you will have the therapy of being alone with your thoughts 16 hours a day. So we were in Scotland in 2002, and my stepfather had died a few months ago. And my stepfather — as you may or may not know, but probably do — was a pivotal figure in my family, insofar as you love the people in your family no matter who they are, but he abused us. And when your abuser dies, little things inside of you will crack open. If you are waiting for this to happen, let me assure you that it is terrifying and wonderful. It’s like a thing happens, like suddenly you have permission to… think about some things. [Loud cheering and applause].”
Darnielle scratches his neck and looks at the floor. “And so, we’re over there in Europe and we’re travelling around and we have to record some songs at the end of the tour for John Peel, may he rest in peace, he was a wonderful man. And I don’t have any new songs, but I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of feelings. So I got about two verses and no bridge written. And we showed up on the floor of Maida Vale 4, and I sat down with a guitar and said, ‘Let’s write this one in G’. It’s called ‘Dance Music’.”
And The Mountain Goats play ‘Dance Music’, and John picks up those flowers. One almighty roar and a second encore later, 1000-odd Mountain Goats fans are eminently cheerier than they were two hours earlier, or will be tomorrow — determined proof that sometimes it takes a little misery to set you on the road to repair.