If you live in the Triangle and are into music, you’ve probably found that the Mountain Goats are more than just a band. They’re a force of nature, whose mere name being mentioned causing any fan in the room to talk about how good they are. I’ve enjoyed their music for awhile but never to the point of considering myself a diehard fan. So when I saw they were coming to Cat’s Cradle, I figured I should check it out and see if the hype was worth believing. That was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while.
It turns out the presence of the Mountain Goats overshadows even other artists in the lineup of their own shows, as it felt like even opener Bowerbirds just wanted to see the band play. This was maybe the only slight downside as I think it took the air out of what was a great opening set; singer Phil Moore brought the kind of brooding yet energetic vocal performance that was perfect for their indie folk sound and songs like “Moon Phase” were quite beautiful while also displaying a steely guitar line. I’m not at all saying that Mountain Goats intentionally took attention away from Bowerbirds; lead singer John Darnielle made it very clear that he was a big fan of their work and went into detail about how Moore in particular greatly influenced certain songs, it just felt kind of awkward when the loudest cheer by far came when Moore said they only had a few songs left.
When the Mountain Goats finally came in, anticipation had reached a fever pitch, especially as their stage entrance came on the back of a dramatic dimming of lights and instrumental intro. This fever pitch was answered with a fiery rendition of “Michael Myers Resplendent” that turned that anticipation into joyous celebration. Throughout the show they got as loud as the best of them but what really stood out were individual moments, a steely guitar attack or an individual drum line, dislocating themselves from the cacophony to make a statement.
Much like the history of the Mountain Goats, the center of this sonic universe is John Darnielle and the wondrous narratives he spins. These are not straightforward arena-ready bangers, but winding tales filled with despair and hope, with concepts ranging from intricate descriptions of wrestling moves to fantasy quests. Before the show I was concerned that the subtleties of the songs would be lost in the roar of a live show but it was the exact opposite: seeing the Mountain Goats live is the absolute best way to experience their work. I have never seen an audience so transfixed that they had to be told when to clap. At one point, I was so locked in to Darnielle’s words I didn’t notice that keyboard player Matt Douglas got up, walked away and came back with a saxophone until it came in with a thunderous line. The versatility of instruments on display here was impressive; after putting down the saxophone Douglas picked up a guitar and Darniella used at least three different guitars throughout the show and sat down at the keyboard himself. Everything about the performance was extremely fluid, with songs blending seamlessly into one another and everyone onstage clearly having a blast being around the crowd and each other.
As the Mountain Goats have over 20 albums to draw from the songs played were extremely varied. Darnielle specifically described artists who rigidly adhere to the same setlist every night as “the forces of evil” ahead of the “middle section” of the show, which for the uninitiated is where the rest of the band leaves and he plays whatever comes to mind. With every spotlight trained on him Darnielle went dark with his time alone onstage, with “Maybe Sprout Wings”, “From TG&Y” and “Isaiah 45:23” serving as an introspective and brutally honest trilogy. The spontaneity could be felt in every word and note played and what could have been just a gimmick was elevated into an unforgettable experience.
The Mountain Goats have been located in Durham for about 15 years now, and the roots they’ve put down in the Triangle were tangible in the performance. This was the last performance of a three-day stint at the Cradle and there wasn’t just an air of finality but of pride at having the opportunity to play there. Darnielle took every opportunity to thank the audience for their support and it was apparent what the roar of the crowd meant to him and the band as a whole. I saw some amazing live performances this semester but I think this one in particular is going to stick with me for a very long time.