I go to a good number of shows in a given year. Live music is almost always worth a listen, so most of the time, I don’t go home disappointed. Even an average band sounds better live, so imagine my excitement at finally seeing The Mountain Goats, a band that I consider to be far, far above average in every way.
It didn’t matter that I was recovering from stomach flu. It didn’t matter that I still had an ear infection. I was so excited to see The Mountain Goats that no amount of illness, or Sudafed-induced drowsiness was going to stop me.
Arriving at the Variety Playhouse just in time to snag a front row seat, I took two more Sudafed and waited for the show to start. Within a few minutes, Megafaun, another band from Durham, NC (current home of The Mountain Goats) took the stage. I had never heard Megafaun’s music and had no idea what to expect.
Megafaun started their set by welcoming us all to North Carolina, claiming that it was “a state of mind” and we were all in it. They then proceeded to make the most hideously awful noise I have heard in some time. This atrocious sound lasted for 15 or so long seconds before the trio broke into a soft, melodic, bluegrass tune.
The trick worked and I was immediately drawn in to this band’s energetic brand of alt-country/new-grass. Megafaun is made up of two brothers, Brad and Phil Cook and friend Joe Westerlund. All three sing and play multiple instruments, sticking mostly to a set-up of banjo, guitar and drums, but sometimes switching the drums for an additional guitar. At one point, the group asked the audience to provide backing vocals, and the growing crowd responded in kind, singing loudly and surprisingly on key.
After a completely satisfying set from Megafaun, it was time for The Mountain Goats to take over. Similar to Megafaun’s cacophonous opening, The Mountain Goats came on stage to a voice saying “America, this is your punk attack” followed by a swell of 1990’s hardcore Prodigy-esque music.
For those audience members who suddenly thought they had come to the wrong show, The Mountain Goats quickly ended the punk rock moment, breaking into a lovely and mellow version of “Liza Forever Minnelli”, a song that accents lead singer John Darnielle’s California roots with the great line “Anyone here mentions “Hotel California” dies before the first line clears his lips”.
This was followed by “Broom People”, sounding loud and full. The Mountain Goats sweeping and booming sound comes in a refreshing contrast to Darnielle’s sometimes strained and nasally voice. The overall effect was clear, resonant and striking.
After about five songs, Darnielle sang one song with only piano accompaniment and then a number of songs on stage by himself, playing guitar. This included the unreleased “Song for My Step Father”, a track that Darneille wrote for The Sunset Tree but left off the album because he didn’t want to have to play it on tour or explain it to press.
The band came back after a few solo songs and balanced the soft solo set with some more full and upbeat tracks, nicely balancing older songs with ones from their new album. Just before the final song of the main set, Darnielle, who had been chatty all night, said to the crowd, “I don’t want to ruin anything for you, but after we’re done, if you clap about a minute, we’ll come back and play another song.” True to his word, the band came back out for not one, but two encores. The first encore ended with the band inviting Megafaun back on stage for what is possibly The Mountain Goats’ most popular song, the anthemic, “This Year”.
Even into the second encore, I didn’t want this show to end. Let me say now, if you ever get the chance to see The Mountain Goats live, go! I don’t care if you are sick or dying or it’s snowing or whatever excuses you may have. Just go. Trust me. They’re that good.