Thanks to the proliferation of writing and the relative easiness of committing one’s words to paper, the oral tradition is lost in today’s culture. But for some, musical poetry still exists. Nowhere is this more inauspiciously confirmed than in the audience of a peculiar, little-known songwriter who records and travels under the moniker of “The Mountain Goats.” John Darnielle, the brains behind the Goats, brought an hour-long segment of oral poetry to an audience eager to lap up his stories and songs at T.T. the Bear’s Place last Friday night.
Darnielle has been recording since 1991, when he worked as a nurse in Southern California. His reputation grew throughout the 90s as a lo-fi avatar, recording his erudite and sometimes recherché love songs on department store boom-boxes. He has since gained wider repute for his talent as a wordsmith and songwriter. In 2002 he joined the esteemed roster of famed British label 4AD, alma mater of the Pixies, Throwing Muses, and Cocteau Twins. Tallahassee, the first release on his new label, was a concept album that concretized the “alpha-series,” a smattering of songs scattered through his albums that told the epic saga of a Florida couple on the brink of divorce. Tallahassee’s follow-up, We Shall All Be Healed, is a similar album of cleanly recorded story-telling that inches the Goats closer to widespread popularity.
Darnielle is well aware of his credentials as an oral poet and understands the ancient origins of his craft. Early cassette-tape album titles include such in-the-know Latin-isms as Taking the Dative, Transmissions to Horace, and Songs to Petronius, and he addresses Greek tragedy in songs like “Against Agamemnon,” and “Deianara Crush.” Darnielle freely acknowledges his debt to ancient literature and song-culture. It was this interest in the story of song that he brought to Cambridge last week.
The two Mountain Goats emerge onstage, clad in jeans and button-down shirts, worlds away from the NYC rock-chic that is keeping a hold on the current indie audience. Bassist Peter Hughes seems to understand that this is Darnielle’s gig: his bass complements Darnielle’s ferocious guitar strumming without ever overpowering it.
The energy summoned by Darnielle’s hand, which becomes a fiery blur on stage, grants his songs overwhelming urgency, as if he might suddenly collapse. I joked with a fellow concert-goer that it was only a matter of time before a string broke; sure enough one sprung right before the encore.
His face, when not mid-bleat, opens widely and painfully, teetering a foot away from the microphone. This exertion that Darnielle puts into his songs lends credence to his tortured tales of desperation and corrupted human relationships as deftly as to his simpler quirky love songs.
The Mountain Goats performed material mostly off their last two albums and opened with the first track from We Shall All Be Healed, “Slow West Vultures,” a pummeling number that set the tone for the show. The audience happily cheered the second-verse’s driving shout of “Get in the goddamn car!” along with Darnielle, who showed delight at the audience’s enthusiastic reaction.
Darnielle went on to play two songs that make no mistake of his passion for the Homeric simile, “Mole” from We Shall All, and “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” off Tallahassee. He prefaced the former with the first of many contextual asides, describing himself years ago stuck in a coma while his then-wife attempted communication, a state which he renders in the song as that of a “mole, peeking his head out from under the earth.” His delivery of “International” brought the song out of its tepid, lyric-dependent existence on the album. Slowing down the pace and varying his intonation gave extra weight to the over-wrought lyrics (“our love is like the border between Greece and Albania”) leading to an epic climax fleshing out the song’s full emotional potential with brutal strength on the line “there is a shortage in the blood supply, but there is no shortage of blood.”
From here Darnielle eased into a brisk and easy rhythm, plucking songs from old cassette-tape albums whose names he (but not members of the audience) had forgotten, and dotting the music with brief bits of personal anecdote. The poignant story he told prefacing “The Young Thousands” was about the little racehorse his mother bet on against better judgment who went on to win the race. But before he got caught up in sentiment for the steed, Darnielle gleefully interjected that even his victories were not enough to keep the horse from being sent out to pasture. Beyond simply entertaining, the tale clarified the song’s somewhat abstract lyrics. At times like this, the lyricist’s full gift for Homeristic story-telling became clear.
For the last couple of songs, The Goats plucked a drummer from the opening band Manishevitz, adding vibrancy to “Quito” and the stomping surf closer “See America Right.” The brief encore that followed included a bizarre and failed audience-participation number, but at that point in the show the crowd was willing to forgive any move Darnielle made.
The highlight of the night was the rendition of All Hail West Texas’s “Jenny,” with its care-free promotion of “900 cc’s of raw whining power, / no outstanding warrant for my arrest / hi diddle dee dee / god-damn! / it’s the pirate’s life for me!” The goat-like Darnielle makes neither a convincing motorcycle rider, nor law-breaker, nor pirate; but at that moment on the stage, with the crowd actively engaged in his every word, he might have made a good Homer.
—Staff writer Christopher A. Kukstis can be reached at email@example.com