As an anarchist and atheist, there are few holidays celebrated in my house. One of the biggest, just behind May Day, is Mountain Goats Day – that one day of the year that The Mountain Goats come to play Chicago. There was considerable excitement around the house on Mountain Goats Day – akin to "Rex Manning Day" if that reference helps – culminating in me dragging Katherine to the Empty Bottle at 8:00 "just to be safe." Although doors weren't scheduled to open until 8:30, I knew I wanted to be there early enough to stake out a prime position at the edge of the stage. At 8:00 a few other die-hard fans were already waiting to secure their own vantage points, and a few others were there in hopes of getting one of the 25 remaining tickets for sale at the door.
When the doors opened I made my rush to the stage, placing myself as close as possible to where The Mountain Goats' frontman John Darnielle would play. The opening act was scheduled to go on in a half-hour and Katherine and I made small talk. The half-hour passed, then an hour, then an hour-and-a-half. I was getting tired, and the crowd around us was getting antsy. I considered writing mean notes to the band for making us wait, but later decided it must be the capitalists that run the venue lying about the start time in an attempt to run up bigger tabs at the bar. At this point, the crowd was one collective grumble.
It was 9:45 when the North Carolinian trio, Bowerbirds, unceremoniously walked onto the stage. Whether the cheers heard were from fans familiar with the band's nu-folk aesthetic or simply concertgoers ready for the show to get underway, I can't say.
The band is comprised of guitarist/vocalist Phil Moore, accordionist Beth Tacular, and violist/keyboardist Mark Paulson. Tacular and Paulson also took turns playing a single kick drum they struck with a cotton mallet. Moore's tenor isn't exactly strong, but it is pleasant. It flitted around his range throughout most of the set, often jumping up into higher registers for wavering accents ala Jeff Buckley. Both Tacular and Paulson provided backing vocals that blended well. Songs were based on Moore's voice and his acoustic guitar, which he either picked, or strummed through open chords. Unfortunately his songs often languished under the long sustaining notes proffered by either Tacular's accordion, or the ones trigged by Paulson's midi foot pedal. Of course, the constant thud of the bass drum did little to lighten the mood. Thankfully the band provided levity by occasionally dipping into Eastern European and Romani influences, which placed the band's sound somewhere near that of Denver's DeVotchKa.
Bowerbirds finished its set at 10:25, and quickly slid its gear out of the way. This revealed a terrifying sight – Darnielle's guitar was set up on the right side of the stage. The opposite side from where he played during last Mountain Goats Day, and the opposite side from where I stood. Although I considered holding my camera above my head and pushing over to the other side of the stage, I opted not to irritate the already exasperated crowd. A crowd that grew only more restless as the stage sat empty and idle once more.
At 10:45, The Mountain Goats climbed onto the dark stage, and opened with "Wild Sage" from its most recent album, Get Lonely. "Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod" from The Sunset Tree followed. Songs from those two albums comprised the bulk of the band's 18-song set list, with two more songs added from We Shall All Be Healed, one from Tallahassee, two from All Hail West Texas, one from Sweden, a pair of new songs, and two covers. With few exceptions, songs were driving and raucous with little attention paid to texture.
Although Darnielle's trademark toothsome grin beamed throughout the set, his interaction with the audience was uncharacteristically limited. Generally songs get rambling introductions revealing bits about Darnielle's personality, however only one song, the new "In the Craters on the Moon," received such attention on this night. The only other interaction included two trips to the edge of the stage (during one of which he grasped the outstretched hands adoring fans), and several calls for the audience to sing louder.
The evening's set list was curious in its omissions. Not only were old fan-favourites skipped, but also newer songs, such as ultimate crowd pleaser "No Children." In some cases, the songs played received unfortunate reworking, as was the case with the night's dour and lifeless version of "Dance Music."
Of the two new songs played, "In the Craters of the Moon" made the bigger impression. This is a noisy track built on the propulsive drumming of Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Rocket From the Crypt, and many, many others.) While I enjoyed his Moon-esque freakout, it was the antithesis of the sound fans are familiar with. Early hints dropped from bassist Peter Hughes seem to indicate the bulk of band's forthcoming album leans in this direction.
After only 40 minutes, Darnielle thanked the audience and began closer "This Year." The audience shouted back the lyrics overpowering Darnielle, and, as was the case several times during the night, he moved away from the microphone, leaving the vocal duties entirely to the crowd.
Far from satiated, the crowd began stomping, clapping, and hollering for an obviously forthcoming encore. Soon the band returned to the stage accompanied by several members of Bowerbirds. This expanded version of The Mountain Goats then ripped through a sloppy and unrehearsed version of The Misfits' "We Bite" featuring Wurster on vocals. This cover was inspired by several dates on the tour where the band found themselves in the same town and hotel as former Misfit Glen Danzig. While entertaining for it's oddity factor, the cover was definitely performed for the enjoyment the band members, not their audience. After dismissing the borrowed Bowerbirds, the trio finished its encore with a version of "Houseguest" written Hughes' previous band, Nothing Painted Blue.
Again the crowd clamoured for more, and eventually drew the band out for a second encore consisting of the oldest song of the night, 2000's "California Song." The band members then grabbed their drinks and left the stage. Prompted by determined clapping from its fans, the trio returned for a third encore and a second crack at "We Bite" – this time featuring Hughes on vocals. "The Best Death Metal Band in Denton" followed to the delight of the crowd. As the song's refrain of "Hail Satan" died down, Darnielle reprised a few lines from "We Bite" once more, and then ended the show. The house music came up, and that was really it.
All holidays are subject to great hype, but few live up to the anticipation. Although Mountain Goats Day often fades into a fuzzy, warm, comforting memory, this one will be different. Something was not right with The Mountain Goats. In fact, I'd say something was definitely wrong. The band's reports from the road have been bitter and tired. The band's performance was uncommonly dark. It felt mean. It felt like John Darnielle was mad at Chicago. This was the final night of the band's current tour, and it was obvious that the players needed to go home. I hope that is it. I hope the band is in better spirits when it returns for Mountain Goats Day next year.