All photos by Leland Gorlin
With his glasses and cranberry slacks, unabashed nerdiness and occasional reference to himself in the third person, John Darnielle is redefining the look and feel of rock n’ roll. Because, in the midst of a sold out three night run at New York’s City Winery, he was, without a doubt, a rock star, capable of producing screams of delight from the audience with the flick of his hair and wipe of his brow.
William Tyler opened with a short but affecting instrumental set on acoustic guitar. Cheeky without being entirely self deprecating, he told us before he began, “everything I’m about to play is great wine drinking music,” storming into the first song with a practiced nonchalance, one leg crossed and an ear tuned down toward the guitar. He acknowledged his wordless style, adding, “It helps when you’re opening for one of the world’s great lyricists to take that off the table.” He was animated and passionate about his music, a good bridge for Darnielle to come, and he often shared the personal, historical or literary origins of his pieces. (Though they weren’t all erudite; “I wrote this after my friend gave me a pot brownie and I listened to Terrapin Station and Joni Mitchell all night.”)
One particularly stunning piece, with soaring cadences and gentle breakdowns, was about “Civil War ghosts in the mountains of Tennessee,” inspired by a childhood love of military history and the road trips he would take with his family. With a charming stage presence and dynamic range of sound, he impressed even the most lyrically-minded among us.
John Darnielle and his Mountain Goats took the stage as Steely Dan’s “Peg” blasted over the speakers, leading to some impressive lip syncing by Darnielle as he sauntered in to wild applause. Backed by a trio on drums, guitar and bass, he opened with “Song For Dennis Brown” from his 2005 album, Sunset Tree, setting a precedent for two hours of music leaping back and fourth across his considerable oeuvre.
His most recent release, Beat The Champ, was well represented in the set, kicking off with “Werewolf Gimmick.” It was soon followed by “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan,” for which the guitar player took up the sax for the first of several times, adding a cool, forlorn depth to the quartet’s sound. Though the April 2015 release is ostensibly a concept album about professional wrestling, its’ songs contemplate and struggle with the same issues that run through the rest of Darnielle’s lyrics, which often touch a tragic, macabre vein of the American experience, from divorce and alcoholism to loneliness and death. After leading the audience in a very slow rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the incredibly talented guitar, keys, and sax man Matt Douglas, he shouted “Right on!” And deadpanned without skipping a beat, “OK, this is a song about drug addicts.”
When he launched into a string of New York themed songs, beginning with “Going To Port Washington,” the man next to us proclaimed with awe, “I never thought I’d hear him play that.” That sentiment seemed to ripple around the room, as the songs that didn’t receive widespread audience reactions would nevertheless move one or two individuals to shout in surprise and delight at the opening notes to their favorite song. But more often than not, the audience sang along as a giddy whole, nailing entire intros without Darnielle’s help or prompting. A pack of tattooed teenagers shouted along to a line from “Liza Forever Minnelli;” “Anyone here who mentions “Hotel California” dies before the first line clears his lips.”
For decades, Darnielle has lead listeners through vast, lonely stretches of the American landscape with a signature brand of hyper-intelligent antipathy, and as he launched into his second encore of the evening, it couldn’t have been more clear– we all hung on his every word, and in some small way, we were all rebels for it.