The Mountain Goats at the Calvin
The Mountain Goats at the Calvin

The Mountain Goats with Mothers

The Calvin Theatre, Northampton, MA

November 8, 2017

Story and photos by Kelly D

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I like to think I have a pretty good knowledge of music, so it’s always a pleasant surprise when I get introduced to new-to-me groups with whom I immediately fall in love. A few weeks ago, upon the gentle suggestion of my concert companion, I began listening to the Mountain Goats- a talented indie rock band led by a charming lead singer/storyteller named John Darnielle. Darnielle’s boyish face belies a wry, world-weary wit (not to mention a deep abiding love for heavy metal). He is also a consummate storyteller; he shared many an endearing anecdote at the Calvin Theatre in downtown Northampton, Mass on a chilly Wednesday evening.

We missed most of the opening act, Mothers, but caught the last few songs with some bizarre imagery in the background: what looked like a women’s self-defense video from the 1960s and plants sprouting and taking root below the ground, the same two or three clips repeated over and over while the Athens, GA-based band wailed in front of them. My companion provided the perfect description for their sound: “angular indie rock.” I couldn’t get a good look at them due to the dark red lighting but I enjoyed what I heard. I’ll be checking them out on Spotify for sure.

I decided to take advantage of the seats we had and enjoyed the rest of the show from a sitting-down vantage point. Roadies brought out two lit candelabras onstage, flanking the drum kit. The Mountain Goats walked out and began the song “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement.” The refrain is “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore,” sung wistfully. One thing I really enjoy about music in general is clever, heartfelt, and/or thought-provoking lyricism and Darnielle’s wordplay certainly nails all three, especially on the Mountain Goats’ recent concept album Goths.

Darnielle shared multiple stories of his youth, including one about becoming infatuated with unicorns and dragons when he was a kid. . . And then deciding such mystical creatures weren’t cool enough for his goth circle of friends. This was the introduction to the song “Unicorn Tolerance,” about denying your inner child’s interests and loves in an attempt to seem cooler to your adolescent friends. Oh, did that hit home! The show was split up into a John Darnielle solo sandwich: one set with a full band, Darnielle performing three songs by himself, and another set with all the band members back onstage. As he is the only constant member of the band, it works.

He was full of one-liners and stories; making the audience laugh and think at the same time. A delightful moment happened after Darnielle finished his trio of songs by himself: local legend Lou Barlow (of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh) randomly joined the band onstage for approximately five minutes. Darnielle mentioned that he and Barlow first performed the song they were to play next in 1994- to your reporter, it’s kind of unreal that is now 23 years ago. They then launched into a blistering version of “Puffin'” and about 90 seconds later, Barlow shuffled offstage. I remarked to my companion later that Barlow seems to be the Bill Murray of Western Mass- Murray has a habit of sneaking up and interacting with fans in a bizarre manner, whispering “No one will ever believe you,” and running away. This seemed to be the musical equivalent.

Read Kelly D’s account of Dinosaur Jr.’s secret show in Amherst back in September 2017 HERE.

I gotta give props to the rest of the band: Jon Wurster, also of Superchunk, slamming away on his drumkit; Peter Hughes charismatically holding it down on bass; and Matt Douglas, who was the real MVP of the night. Douglas played no fewer than four instruments as well as providing backing vocals to Darnielle. What a treat, to watch this multi-instrumentalist transition from saxophone to flute to keyboards and back again. The last “full band” set ended a meaty four-song encore, finishing with “No Children.” It’s a jaunty number whose dark, nihilistic lyrics totally clash with the cheery twang of Darnielle’s acoustic guitar and Douglas’ plinking piano. I suppose it’s perfectly emblematic of the Mountain Goats’ style- what I took away from their show and Darnielle’s anecdotes is that there is harsh beauty everywhere, and sometimes you only have to dig the tiniest bit to find it.

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