THE MOUNTAIN GOATS + Shearwater + Jeff Hanson @ La Sala Rossa

By Alex - Losing My Edge - 05/10/2005

Exactly one week after the release of The Sunset Tree, John Darnielle (better known as The Mountain Goats) made his first appearance in Montreal despite releasing records – and cassettes – since 1995. The touring unit consisted of Darnielle and longtime collaborator/bassist Peter Hughes and was somewhat of a return to the lo-fi minimalism that characterized the Mountain Goats for so long before the advent of a lusher sound with their 4AD debut album Tallahassee almost three years ago. This was the perfect set-up, because after years of building his reputation as an accomplished lyricist thanks to his ability to craft greatly detailed fictional tales, The Sunset Tree is heavily rooted in his own life, growing up with an abusive stepfather (who he “thanks” in the liner notes). Therefore, this stripped-down version of the Mountain Goats – though some would argue that this is the Mountain Goats – made each song resonate more than it would have if the entire personnel behind The Sunset Tree had been along for the ride.

The Mountain Goats started off with four tracks (“Love Love Love”, “Dance Music”, “Dilaudid”, “You Or Your Memory”) from their latest release in the first half of the show and given the powerful nature of these songs, coupled with an astonishingly crisp delivery vocally and musically, the audience was held captive by Darnielle and Hughes. The songs performed were short and to-the-point, but without ever robbing them of their potency. The next two tracks were on the longer and quieter side, a sequence which always threatens to derail any concert if they aren’t quite majestic (they weren’t). Luckily, Darnielle won us back with the excellent “This Year”, a song perfect on a teenage summer night past. A mix of anger, hope and defiance (“I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me”), this track cuts right through anybody who has ever been young, but without resorting to self-pitying clichés.

Opener Shearwater, who were pleasant but unspectacular, joined the Mountain Goats for the next song, “Letter From Belgium”, and until the end of the set. They added a nice layer to Darnielle’s performance, but truthfully, they neither added nor detracted from the show. The audience had already been won over by Darnielle, who was affable as could be. The interaction went around the usual “stage banter-heckler-witty retort” that feigns crowd connection, and instead feeling like a genuine back-and-forth between friends. He even gamely launched into the first few lines of “It’s Raining Men” when it was requested amidst the concert-long cries for “No Children” and “Cubs In Five”.

One could be forgiven for labelling John Darnielle as another painfully indie singer-songwriter, given the misuse of verbose lyrics, peculiar voices and lo-fi production in the last few years. However, that skips over the essence of the Mountain Goats. His distinctive voice is one that evokes the past almost effortlessly, celebratory rather than weary about the survival of life. That is what makes him, unlike other similarly prolific artists who only seem interested in credibility through genre exercises, an alternately fascinating and devastating storyteller.

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