3/8/02, The Empty Bottle, Chicago

Johnny Loftus

“Hey everybody, We’re the Mountain Goats!”

And with that, John Darnielle and his acoustic guitar launched into his headlining set at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. That’s the joke – Over the course of numerous albums as the Mountain Goats, Darnielle has never recorded with much more than his own earnest vocal chords and guitar, straight into the no-fi mic on his archaic boom box. His driving, wordy songs sketch out tales of wac relationships, true love, and booze. Often, they turn into a history or geography lesson, as if Darnielle’s conducting a refresher course for his legion of indie rock followers, who were too busy writing Sebadoh lyrics on their notebooks to listen in class.

In the late 1970s, Jonathan Richman’s short hair and old-world romantic sensibilities were opposite to, yet somehow an intrisic part of, the punk/new wave movement that was thriving all around he and The Modern Lovers. Spiked-belted East Village fancy boys pumping their tatooed fists to “Dignified and Old?” It happened. Similarly, Darnielle’s clean-cut looks and complete lack of pretense set him apart from the groups/artists surrounding Mountain Goats albums in the record collections of his constituency. And yet, the vintage clothing set is rabid for his acoustic troubadour witticisms. On Friday night at the Bottle, Darnielle’s self-effacing nature, chuckling anecdotes, and folksy delivery made for a sort of Prairie Home Companion for indie kids.

Darnielle is a talented songwriter. But his formula of a straightforward guitar line, clever turn of phrase, and emotional, barely restrained vocal delivery inevitably wears thin. After half an hour of jangling chords and heartfelt singing, the line between the Mountain Goats and the average stool-rocker at your local open mic night is in great danger of being crossed, or destroyed altogether. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Guys who serenade crowded lounges each weekend with acoustic renditions of “Allison,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Secondhand News” serve their purpose.

But what’s really separating John Darnielle from those guys, besides a gamut of releases on pedigreed labels like Emperor Jones or 4AD? The meat of his songs, the lyrics, definitely contain more emotion than the average busker. To be sure, Darnielle on Friday had at least 20 professional hipsters passionately singing along with their impossibly normal hero. But if Garrison Keillor books a club tour, will he get the same reaction?


5 thoughts on “THE MOUNTAIN GOATS”

  1. All Hail West Texas is the best album of 2002. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” and “The Fall of the Star High School Running Back” are two of the best songs ever. Effecient and emotional. Wonderful.

  2. That may be, but the live experience fell short. It wasn’t any better than any open mic night I’ve been to. Now, it may be that lyrics got past me or that I was distracted by the crowd or whatever, but it just wasn’t particularly engaging.

  3. I can imagine that. The only thing that separates the Mountain Goats from the open mic dilettantes IS the lyrics, which are far above and beyond the average guitar strummer. That’s the crazy thing about All Hail West Texas: on the one hand it’s so D/I/Y it’s inspirational, as in “Dude, all I need is a guitar and a boombox, and I could make a record this great.” But on the other hand, it’s crippling, as in “Dude, I could try forever and I’ll never come up with a song as intensely emotional and thought-provoking and just fucking brilliant as ‘The Fall of the Star High School Running Back.'” Know what I’m saying? When it comes down to songwriting, and hearing an unfamiliar voice singing unfamiliar material, is it possible to be impressed by any “guy and a guitar” in that environment? Do you think you would have been blown away if you saw Neil Young with just a guitar in a noisy bar if you’d never heard him before? I wonder. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by how quick I blow shit off the first time I see or hear it only afterwards to really get into it and wish I had been really paying attention the first time around…

  4. Absolutely. It’s very easy to shrug off music that doesn’t immediately garb you. Some things need to soak for a bit. I wasn’t immediately taken with Summer Teeth, despite Wilco being one of my all-time favorite bands. After a lot of intense listening, it has become one of my favorite albums (amazingly, I think Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is even better, but I digress…)I am looking forward to hearing and really digesting the Mountain Goats recorded work. I certainly wasn’t turned off by the show on Friday, it just didn’t blow my mind like I expect the recordings to.

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