Review and photos – The Mountain Goats at the Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver, June 2 2010
– review by Raoul Fernandes/photos by Robyn Hanson
It was The Mountain Goats, not Leonard Cohen, that first came to mind when I was recently given an assignment of making a mix-cd of “writerly” songs, ones that showed a literary craft to them, or meant something to me as a writer.
It was hard to choose, but I could have picked almost any of their songs and gone on at geeky lengths about the emotional vividness and poetic storytelling of songwriter John Darnielle. I’ll hold back here, but it’s these qualities that brought many fans down to the gritty Rickshaw Theatre on June 2 2010, an unusually cold evening; the chance of having their hearts kicked in by one of the best poets in indie rock.
Starting solo with his guitar, Darnielle caught the crowd’s attention immediately with his vigorous percussive strumming and piercing nasal tenor, the latter of which seemed even more piercing due to the venue’s boxy concrete acoustics. His voice is a palms-to-the-ears affair for some people, but for others, there’s something strangely disarming about it.
After he raised the pitch for the lines: “When I hunt down the vampire that did this to us/I will rip out his heart with my hands,” the bug-eyed and open-mouthed expression on his face was that of someone who had actually just committed the bloody act. We would see that look of cathartic joy throughout the show, and each time the feeling would be instantly transmittable.
“I must be lonesome; all these songs are for my wife,” Darnielle confessed a couple songs later. He then crept into the minimal, after-the-storm stillness of “Get Lonely” from the album of the same name. Despite humorously forgetting the lyrics halfway, he was able to sink back into its quiet intensity.
Keeping with the mood, he sat down at the piano: a new instrument in the Mountain Goats live set, and featured strongly on their latest biblically-themed release, The Life Of The World To Come. During the beautiful sparseness of “Genesis 30:3”, the bassist and drummer took to the stage to quietly accompany Darnielle.
They took their time making their presence felt over the the haunting “Deuteronomy 2:10” and kicking in during a smouldering version of “Samuel 15:23” which ended with Darnielle pounding dissonantly on the low C of his piano. The tension in the song was palatable, causing one guy to yell out, either in desperation or appreciation, “We’re so tense out here!”
Returning to his axe, Darnielle exclaimed, “If you venture to the alley behind here you might meet some of the people in this song,” reminding the crowd of the fact that they were near the centre of the ravaged and toxic heart of the Downtown Eastside, one of the most despairing neighbourhoods in North America.
They burned through the ominous “In The Craters Of The Moon,” demonstrating the fierce percussive skills of drummer John Wurster. The next song “Belgian Things” in turn, emphasized dapperly-dressed bass player Peter Hughes‘ expressive melodic playing. Both did well to fill out Darnielle’s simple song structures without distracting from them.
“Dance Music” and “You or Your Memory” favourites from the 2005 Mountain Goats album The Sunset Tree, picked up the crowd before we were brought back to the uneasy desperation of “Ezekiel 7” at the piano. It was great to see the new songs given more space and range in their live versions; eruptions of loudness within quiet parts, often with Darnielle singing at almost a whisper and then yelling out, as if just realizing he had his hand stuck in a fire.
Leaving the stage and then returning to a loud and appreciative audience, Darnielle confessed that he was terribly sick and was getting through on adrenaline. Proving that it was still coursing through his veins, they launched into the acidic snarl of Tallahassee‘s “No Children” getting the crowd to sing most of the song including the chorus of “And I hope you die!/I hope we both die!”, bringing bitterness to a point of pure transcendence. The stomper “See America Right”, from the same 2002 album, had the crowd bouncing and screaming for more even when the house music came on.
Now, the house music is usually a certain cue to give up hope and scan for the blurry red of the exit signs, but as most of the crowd was shuffling away, the band returned to the stage. Still in apparent high spirits, Darnielle hammed out a cover of a Nothing Painted Blue song, “House Guest”, while tossing flowers from a bouquet.
It was almost surreal when, after they left again, and with the house music back on and most of the audience already on the No.3 bus to less sketchy parts of Main Street, The Mountain Goats returned to treat the diehards still there to an unreleased song “Enoch 18:14”, thus proving their deep generosity as a band.
Spectacled opener The Beets (from Jackson Heights, New York, proudly noted on their handmade banner), was a garage-y mix of fuzzy distorted guitars, shared singing, plod-happy drumming, and a recorder player curiously hidden behind the banner (punished perhaps?). In a sense they were a perfect opening band; young, catchy, and – most importantly – able to keep their set short and sweet. What they lacked in blood and guts would definitely be made up in the act to follow.
More photos of the Mountain Goats at the Rickshaw Theatre: