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The Mountain Goats + Final Fantasy

12 Nov

“Any Fantasies You May Have After This You May Disregard as Fallacious” or “Their Perfection is Absolute and Everlasting”

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Close to the end of The Mountain Goats set at the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday night, John Darnielle squinted out to the audience and smiled, pulling his upper lip back to laugh. He had been laughing all night, a high nasal laugh connected to his singing voice and filled with energy and tightly wound intelligence. “I never thought I would be here. This place is mythic to me,” he told the sold out house. “I remember reading this John Berryman poem ‘Dog-tired, suisired, will now my body down near Cedar Avenue in Minneap’ and for a boy living out in southern California, he may as well have been talking about the shores of Tasmania. Cedar Avenue? I would never go there!”

But Darnielle was fully present all night long, throwing himself into songs, starting with the opening number “1 Samuel 15:23”. The Mountain Goats played a number of tracks from this year’s The Life of the World To Come, with Darnielle bouncing between the keyboard and his black op-art, shark-shape mother-of-pearl inlaid acoustic guitar as bassist Peter Hughes swung his beast of Fender Jazz bass around the stage, resplendent in his striped earth toned suit. From the get-go, there was volubility to Darnielle, an excited friendliness that made him joyfully compelling to watch, as words and interstitial embarrassment flowed out of him. Before introducing “How To Embrace a Swamp Creature”, he went on an impressive rant about the emotional depth of the song; “I try to introduce this song in a way that doesn’t make it seem tawdry but…it’s tawdry. When you wake up in the morning and think that the only way to fulfill yourself spiritually is to sleep with your ex, there is only a certain epistemological depth you can get from it. People talk like it is happening to a cartoon character, its not…its happening to two cartoon characters.” It is good to know that your life is not the only one that sometimes feels like it comes from the Sunday funnies.

With that sort of ecumenical intelligence peppering the performance, the impassioned hurt and intelligence of the songs shone through all the clearer. Darnielle addressed some of his own personal pain that pushes the music laughingly, directly, saying “Whenever I try to talk about songs off The Sunset Tree there’s something…if I tell you a story about my stepfather throwing a vacuum cleaner at me, you’d think that is horrific, but yeah, its kind of funny…” before breaking into a rocking, thick version of “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod”. The band shifted dynamic excellently throughout the night, opening mid-tempo before dropping off to allow some seriously touching solo moments.

The Mountain Goats + Final Fantasy from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

After dismissing the band for the middle of the set, Darnielle called up opener Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy, who had held his own for a magnificent opening set and played through a hauntingly sweet and restrained version of “Genesis 30:3”. Before the song Darnielle joked about the source material for this year’s disc, laughing about the the questions he had been getting from journalists. “What’s the appeal of the Bible? It’s like, what’s the appeal of the alphabet?” he grinned incredulously, but then grounded the comment in an earnest exhortation of the simplicity of God as present in love, regardless of the situation. The Old Testament tune deals with the barrenness of Jacob’s wife Rachel and Rachel offering her servant Bilhah as a surrogate for Jacob. Bilhah bears a son, Dan, and thus continues the line of Jacob. (It is funny to note that all those names except Bilhah, the one who actually bore the child but was not of sufficient standing to be a wife or regarded highly, are now common names. If there were more honest memories in the Bible, we would all be named for servants and slaves.) But that refrain, “I will do what you ask me to do/Because of how I feel about you,” hung out over the crowd and was as poignant as any bittersweet memory.

When Darnielle brought the band back out, they proceeded to get down to brass tacks, doing some fierce rocking. Hughes provided thick, pulsing basslines and regular drummer Jon Wurster pulled from his bag of tricks to keep the pace cracking along as played in a haze of incense smoke. Darnielle brought along a second guitar player from Raleigh-Durham, where the band is now based, who was able to add heavy layering of licks and feeback to bring the sweat in the final part of the show, all the way through to the shouting encore finale of “This Year”, where the chorus of “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me” may be one of the most uplifting oxymorons in all of modern music.

Throughout the night, various comparisons to The Hold Steady, a band who I have seen and loved more live than any other band I can name flitted through my head, Darnielle’s agnostic Episcopalianism versus Finn’s Catholicism, the similarity of the open floodgates of performer’s joy, the sartorial inclinations of Hughes and Franz Nicolay, the quoting Berryman, and all throughout, I was pretty sure Darnielle would not take offense to any such comparisons. That was confirmed when Darnielle came out solo for a second encore, what he called a “bonus track”. “and as you know,” he announced, “bonus tracks don’t have to be perfect. I don’t even know if I remember the second chord.” But in tuning up, the crowd in front had figured out the tune and shouted that they would help, so Darnielle covered The Hold Steady’s “Positive Jam” to end the night, haltingly, passionately, having fun and having help, a perfect cap to an exuberant performance.

The Mountain Goats from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Before all that was set in motion, there was of course, Owen Pallett. The Canadian violin virtuoso is an immaculate artist, one whose pitch and timing make his complicated looping compositions both accessible and moving. With his violin, little Nord keyboard and sampler, he performed flights of fancy involving pizzicato and reverb that mere mortals should not attempt without safety nets and circus training. After seeing him a little bit as a fish out of water at the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer (for my money though, he still owned it) the attentive crowd at the Cedar was the perfect accompaniment and ate up the set. One particular highlight was a cover of the Simon Bookish track “Interview”, in which the musician imagines themselves being interviewed about British monarchy by a former Prime Minister, a work that Pallett rendered both complex and droll. With a new record Heartland out in January, contributions to the soundtrack for the film The Box and possible work on the upcoming Arcade Fire record, 2010 looks to be a good year for fine gentleman from the North.

Final Fantasy from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

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