bandega.com - never miss a show again

The Mountain Goats
Swedish American Music Hall - Jun 28, 2012
review by owencenli

I always feel a little funny at shows where everyone is seated. It was like that the other night when John Darnielle played solo at the Swedish American Music Hall. The second song was "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent," and Darnielle started rocking out. During his final nasally crescendo ("higher than weather balloons/empty hearts on fire/hungry for love/ready to drown"), it felt like he was in the wrong place. Everyone sat rapt and still - like we were actually here for a violin recital or a classic stage play. The venue worked better for the slower songs, giving extra significance to his breathy whispers and dramatic pauses.

I last saw Darnielle five or six years ago downstairs at the Middle East in Boston. He seems a little more relaxed and slightly less awkward now. He told long stories between his short songs, showcasing his dry sarcasm, revealing his nerdiness and celebrating his emotional sensitivity with self-deprecating humor – all the things that make his songs so endearing. One of the longest stories involved a friend from his past who inspired the classic "Fall of the Star High School Running Back." It starts out with them walking across a bridge still high on speed and ends with his former friend getting arrested at an airport in Amsterdam.

At one point, Darnielle was joined by Allen Callaci on cell phone for "Lonesome Surprise" (A nice gesture towards Callici who is recovering from heart surgery). Otherwise it was Darnielle and his guitar. He also played a few songs on piano, including a gut-wrenching rendition of "Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod." The song recounts a violently abusive relationship with his stepfather. He played a simple piano arrangement to a climax and when he belts out "held under these smothering waves/by your strong and thick veined hand/but one of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land," it's completely devastating. After each song, he turned to the crowd with an expression like, "Did you guys like that?"

In truth, Darnielle is a decent but not particularly gifted musician or vocalist. His appeal comes from his unique energy and pithy songwriting. He does a lot of grimacing and head shaking at shows and it's infectious. For most people, moments of intense self-reflection (ranging from bliss to self-pity) are rare. For Darnielle, those moments can come at any time, and at a pace that churns out a concept album every year or so. He convinces us that the banal is actually beautiful, that our teenage angst truly was as profound as we believed at the time. What can I say? He continues to convince.