I remember a quote from somewhere or someone that the best concerts should make you feel like you’ll never die. Whoever’s responsible for such wisdom is a kindred spirit of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.
This is more than just the feeling of seeing an amazing show, which everyone at the Cedar was treated to. Darnielle’s stage presence goes beyond the usual clichés of intense, high-energy, playful, exuberant. There is a happiness and comfort on-stage for him, it seems, a sense that he’d be the same way performing in front of 10 people as he’d be 10,000. His frequent shouts to band members, singing off-mic or moving away from the mic before finishing a line, and playful interactions with boisterous audience members exudes an unabashed joy that is neither forced nor presented as a mask.
Darnielle’s voice, a combination of singing, shouting, and preacherly oratory, is the Mountain Goats most recognizable elements, and it cut through the band even at its loudest moments. The group performed songs from a wide range of albums, many from their most recent record, The Life of the World to Come, but also older albums such as Heretic Pride, The Sunset Tree, and even more obscure albums such as Isopanisad Radio Hour and Full Force Galesburg.
Given his more recent exploration of religious themes and imagery—all of the songs on the most recent record take their cues and titles from specific Bible verses—Darnielle is well aware that we all die, and doesn’t shy away from this fact of life. One of the best lyrics of the entire concert is from “Isaiah 45:23,” from the perspective of a terminal cancer patient: “I won’t get better/but someday I’ll be free.” Others take a less individual perspective, referencing an apocalyptic “burning fuselage of my days” on “Psalms 40:2”
Most of the music that serves as these lyrics’ bed, though, didn’t match the morose, grotesque, even violent character of these and other lyrics. Much of it is bright folk-rock-pop that had the tightly-packed crowd moving as much as it could, exuding an optimism that not even the darkest lyrical subjects can overwhelm. And the band can flat-out rock. There were even some moments that I forgot this was a Walker show, like their encore performance of the raucously positive “This Year,” caring little for how aesthetically innovative the words or music might have been and simply the enjoying the abandon that comes with the best rock ‘n’ roll.
One of the things Darnielle and the Mountain Goats are best known for is their lo-fi sound, at least until his more recent albums. There was a nod to that, it seemed, with the choice of keyboard Darnielle used for songs like the darkly ponderous “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” another apocalyptic tale about the necessity of moving forward as the world ends around you. While on The Life of the World to Come, the piano parts are played on what sounds like your standard grand piano, the digital piano sounded slightly thin and tinny, the synthesized equivalent of a spinet. Whether a choice of economy over aesthetics, it just seemed to fit.
Although lo-fi has become its own category of experimentation, the more traditionally experimental side of the night was presented by its opener, Final Fantasy (aka Owen Pallett). I’m a complete sucker for real-time digital looping, and Pallett uses the technique masterfully, recording highly intricate melody lines on keyboard and violin that danced polyphonically through the Cedar’s sound system. Pallett employed much more than loops, with octave transformations, distortions, delays, and other processing effects that heightened the power of his violin. Using a slight delay, he created the illusion of double-time pizzicato, while another time, he made a col legno intro (playing with the wood of the bow instead of the string) even more eerie through the use of a jittery echo. As opposed to Darnielle, Pallett’s warm, rich tenor voice often got lost in the swirling cascades of sound, becoming another instrumental voice. (Comparisons to Andrew Bird are unavoidable, and the two worked together on Pallett’s Pays to Please EP.) Pallett also joined Darnielle for a number of songs, including “Genesis 30:3,” about the “alternative living arrangements” of making a family with three instead of two, and “Orange Ball of Hate.” Before playing this last song, off of 1994’s Zopilote Machine, Darnielle happily remarked that its gray hair had been shed with the infusion of Pallett’s musical voice.
In the midst of Darnielle’s solo set, a voice from the crowd called for him to do a backflip. Not missing a beat, Darnielle launched into a childhood story about trying to execute the maneuver on his parents bed when no one was looking. For him, not seeing it is the key: unseen, its perfection can never be questioned. The devoted fans who stayed and sang through Darnielle’s second encore, a communal re-telling of the Hold Steady’s “Positive Jam,” could’ve cared less about perfection; they were overjoyed simply to have seen.