I really enjoy the Mountain Goats but this is a band whose music can be intensely cerebral. Sorting through the meaning of songs and the meaning beneath the meaning of other songs is exhausting business. This point was never more obvious than the first half of their show in Portland Maine. Take Absolute Lithops Effect, a song about a shut-in that morphs (literally? metaphysically? does it matter?) into a plant. Mountain Goats fans like nothing more than to figure out which narrative voices pop up on different albums and in different songs. The Mountain Goats have inspired reams of philosophical musings on the meanings and connective tissue between songs. Try doing that with even two Justin Bieber tracks.
John Darnielle introduced most of the songs with a bit of storytelling. He talked at length about the couple (with the implied autobiographical bent) that have inspired a whole songbook from the rotting layers of their relationship in Alpha Negative to the thematic postscript Alpha Rats Nest and of course, the obvious one No Children – inciting the audience to scream enthusiastically, “I hope we both die!” He introduced the real life wrestler Ox Baker with a gently spun analysis of Baker’s probable mindset (he was famous for the Heart Punch which is exactly what it sounds like) and a fictional set of circumstances in Baker’s life revolving around a t-shirt with his famed catchphrase “I love to hurt people” that might have led Darnielle to be inspired to write the song Ox Baker Triumphant in which the wrestler gets revenge on…everyone…if only it had really happened.
Darnielle is a gifted songwriter and an equally gifted showman. There were times of utter beauty (Wild Sage) and exuberant rock ‘n’ roll (second encore Jenny which he introduced by way of asking the audience if they would kindly take a barn burning 2nd encore as his version of telling us the show was over.) He called someone in the audience an asshole – twice – “Here’s a tip,” he said, “Don’t be an asshole” for suggesting he play Free Bird. He also asked that everyone chatting in the back of the venue just go away. But he was also greatly appreciative to find an audience in Maine – he said he had never played in the state before – and I can attest that the majority of the crowd knew the music. The band cranked up the intensity with Woke Up New (easily one of my favorites of the night) and didn’t let up until the house lights came on.
And to be fair, it’s absolutely true that some songs don’t require extensive analysis. Going to Maine is about a man (with the understood autobiographical bent) who takes his affair out of state to avoid being found out by his wife. And as you can probably already guess, it doesn’t end well.
The Diaz Brothers
Fall of the Star High School Running Back
Absolute Lithops Effect
Beautiful Gas Mask
Alpha Rats Nest
Song for Mark and Joel
Idylls of the King
Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace
Spent Gladiator 2
Ox Baker Triumphant
It Froze Me
Woke Up New
International Small Arms Traffic Blues
The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton (with The Baptist Generals’ Chris Flemmons and Ryan Williams)
Going to Maine