Let us be clear from the very beginning -- this member of the Rocks Off Aftermath team isn't the most storied fan of The Mountain Goats. Though we'd heard of the legendary John Darnielle before, out first actual exposure to his music was in 2007 with Heretic Pride, and we were so struck by the power and majesty of his songwriting acumen that we found ourselves to be instant fans (though our affection pales in comparison to that of the band's quite passionate fandom). Nevertheless, we don't feel that it takes an obsessive acolyte to appreciate, respect, and adore how amazingly literate, liberating, and emotionally raw these songs are -- they're like Denis Johnson short stories set to music.
If you're familiar at all with the band's mythology, Darnielle began his career in the '90s by recording his intense brand of cathartic folk rock songs into a boombox. The fables grew into fact as his prolific corpus grew by leaps and bounds, but most fans and critics would say his first big break occurred with All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee, both of which were released in 2002. From there, The Mountain Goats have released several celebrated records laden with autobiographical material, including The Sunset Tree (2005), The Life of the World to Come (2009, our favorite record), and last year's All Eternals Deck.
Most important to this story is that Friday night's show at Fitzgerald's was the first time since the tour for The Sunset Tree in 2005 that The Mountain Goats have made an appearance in Houston. Darnielle mentioned this two or three times over the course of the night, apologizing for the absence each time, as he feels Houston gets an unfortunately bad rap in the music community. And judging by what appeared to be a sold-out show, the excited crowd seemed to support such an assertion.
Nurses opened the show at 10 p.m. and played a 10-song set that kept the crowd mostly interested. On the whole, the trio pulled off an enjoyably spacey psych-pop sound with heavy afro-pop and yacht rock tendencies that called to mind Ben Bridwell of Band Of Horses fronting a band featuring members of Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend, and Grizzly Bear. The bass and drums created a rather sturdy floor upon which the lilting tenor vocals and warbling jazz-pop guitar licks could dance. We do feel that the sampler was doing a bit of heavy lifting in terms of filling in the empty spaces when the guitar or vocals would drift off, but there was a decent portion of the downstairs throng that really enjoyed the group's 40-minute set.
Billed as the "New Hymns for the Advent of the Serpent God Tour 2012," The Mountain Goats hit the stage at 11pm, but not before a healthy portion of "Sing Your Praise To The Lord" by Amy Grant was blasted over the speakers. Over the next 90 minutes, the be-jacketed trio rumbled through 19 different songs -- four of which featured John on stage solo as he tried out new material for an upcoming 2012 release (including a track called "Diaz Brothers"), and three of which served as the show's encore. As you would expect from any assembly filled with dedicated disciples, there was plenty of people singing along to every possible song, as well as strong contingent that yelled out their favorite tracks during the break between each song.
When you're an artist with a strong following and a very deep catalog of material, you're bound to disappoint someone when you don't play "that" song, but it seems like everyone came away having heard Darnielle, Peter Hughes, and Jon Wurster play at least a handful of your favorite songs. Personally, we nearly peed our pants when the band played "Ezekiel 7 and the Efficacy Of Grace" (The Life of the World To Come), "Love Love Love," and "This Year" (both off The Sunset Tree). Other great cuts of note included "Quito" (We Shall All Be Healed), "No Children" (Tallahassee), and "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" (All Hail West Texas) with its rousing chorus of "Hail Satan!"
The Mountain Goats proved again that they are amazing musicians and consummate performers, though Hughes and Wurster offer up most of the stage time to Darnielle, since he connects with crowds quite easily. He joked throughout the night, including some mocking anecdotes about how he and other artists (Nick Cave, specifically) deal with people talking during a set. He even offered up a rambling story about his ambitious attempt to hand-paint 1,000 non-pressed copies of The Sunset Tree for a limited-edition gift for fans, and how 350 copies of this failed promotion still languish in his basement. In short, it's nearly impossible to dislike a musician who sings songs that are so very powerful and intimate while wearing a button emblazoned with the phrase "Trust Women" on his jacket.
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Personal Bias: I felt rather intimidated by fans that seemed to know just about every word to every old song. I really like this band, but I felt like an "apprentice" fan, as opposed to an "expert."
The Crowd: A wide spectrum of flannel-wearing music nerds ranging from 25-40+ in age, hipsters who knew they were "supposed" to be at this show, and an odd coterie of guys and gals dressed in clubby attire
Overheard in the Crowd: "How do alcoholic brosephs even know about the Mountain Goats? Did Dave Matthews do a cover or something?"
Random Notebook Dump: When John Darnielle wears his glasses, he looks like a cross between Harry Potter and Jon Oliver (of The Daily Show).