The very idea of The Mountain Goats headlining the Fillmore would have been hard to imagine not so long ago. I started paying attention to John Darnielle in the late 90s, when the Mountain Goats consisted of one intense guy sitting in a chair, thrashing at an acoustic guitar and blurting out compact tragicomic short stories with folk chords, punk energy, and unreliable narrators. John always knew how to carry off the solo-artist-with-a-group-name paradox, sitting in his chair, fixing his laser beam eyes on the crowd, and shouting jovially, "Hi, we're the Mountain Goats!"
The records (and there were truckloads of 'em) came out on various small indie labels, all recorded on a cheap cassette boombox with a loud motor that sounded like another instrument in the mix. The songs themselves, though, were conceptually ingenious, full of telling details, outrageous hyperbole, literary references, and moments of heart-rending humanity. To put on a Mountain Goats disc was to be in the presence of a mind teeming with ideas that had to get it out there, right now. This was the lo-fi revolution that bands like Sebadoh promised but never delivered. (It helps to have material, not to mention something interesting to say.)
This is the stuff of cult stardom for sure, and a devoted audience was already growing. One thing about Mountain Goats gigs: they were always tremendous fun. You got a funny, wired, engaging guy up there who loved to banter with the crowd and could veer at any point into a hilarious, spontaneous, breathless monologue about just about anything, a catalogue of songs with outrageous wordy titles that are fun to shout out loud, and there was always a good chance John might actually play them if you did.
Then something shifted around the turn of the century. 4AD signed the Mountain Goats, and suddenly, all the atmosphere implied in those stark strums became fleshed out. Suddenly, Mountain Goats recordings were being created in studios, with budgets, sympathetic musicians, and attention to sonic detail. John seized the opportunity and has created a whole second career and a string of intriguing song cycles, the third of which, The Sunset Tree, shattered the mold he has created from the start, abandoning his character-driven songs for a set that drew directly from personal experience as a teenager with an abusive stepfather biding his time until he can step out and be a free adult. ("I am gonna make it/through this year/if it kills me!") Then, just to keep us all on our toes, he followed with Get Lonely, in which the very happily married Darnielle put himself in the shoes of a bereft soul recovering from the aftermath of a breakup and left you wondering whether he was OK. (Sure he's OK. He's also empathetic as hell, which is why his lyrics work the way they do.)
And Mountain Goats fans have stuck around through all this, and their ranks have grown enough to fill the Fillmore last Friday. Joining the bill was Kaki King, a virtuoso acoustic guitarist who has come up recently and has a big fan in John Darnielle. We hadn't been to a Mountain Goats show in several years, and intended to bring a copy of Freedom Fried to give to John, so he can hear how our cover of "Twin Human Highway Flares" came out. No video cameras for this one, this is the Fillmore.
We staked out a place up front and chatted with a family who came together, a young son in his early 20s who brought his out-of-town mom to show her a good time. An unannounced opening act came on (I can't find their name anywhere online...The Invisible Frames, or something like that?) [UPDATE: The band is called INTERSTELLAR GRAINS. We will be adding some of their music to the station as soon as they send it.] and plunged into some psychedelic fusion funk. They were all right. Short songs are a good quality for a jam band to cultivate. The best part was when they brought a fifth member on with a solid body electric sitar and they took off into classic San Francisco acid-rock territory. Otherwise, they were a pleasant, skilled warmup for the main event.
Kaki King strolled onstage, a tiny, dark-eyed woman with a piercing stare, accompanied by a three-piece band. Starting solo, she performed a piece that showed off her hammer-on technique, her hands flying all over the fretboard and drumming out melodies, countermelodies and mesmerizing patterns on the strings until the band eventually joined in for a climactic pow. From there, she was all over the place, sometimes churning out more intricate, hypnotic instrumentals, sometimes switching to electric guitar (she switched guitars between every song, from roundbacked Ovation-like acoustics to hollow body electrics, all Hamers...I wonder if they're giving her any sponsorship money? They certainly ought to.) and singing original indie-rock flavored songs with vigorously strummed circular chord patterns and bitter lyrics. (Several songs were prefaced with "This song is about breaking up with an Israeli girl", which probably fed into the fantasies of her many adoring fans of both genders in the crowd who undoubtedly would have jumped at the chance to soothe her furrowed brow.) It's very nice to see a guitarist who is equally at home with stunning viruosity on a John Fahey or Matthew Grasso level or spirited Sterling Morrison or Stephen O'Neill hyper-strumming, and throwing herself into both with equal gusto. The backup band did well, as did the very busy guitar tech, tossing her one Hamer after another.
The Mountain Goats are a true band now. Along with dapper longtime bassist, close friend, and occasional early contributor Peter Hughes (a full-time Mountain Goat since 2002), Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, who first appeared on last year's album Heretic Pride, is now a live member. John Darnielle did not hide his joy one iota; for him, this Fillmore show was clearly a victory lap. At one point, he testified to the crowd about the importance of San Francisco in his life. The first shows he and original bassist Rachel Ware played outside of his then-home in Southern California were here, and he found a simpatico audience immediately. Now headlining at this famous historical rock ballroom, he gushed to his audience, thanking us for supporting what was once a peculiar, quixotic lo-fi project and helping nurture it into what it is now.
Most but not all of the songs were drawn from the 4AD releases, but there were a few flashbacks to earlier times like "The Mess Inside" and "Going To Bolivia", where Wurster's drumming locked into the urgent patterns of the old cassette-recorded acoustic strums and inhabited them with explosive concentration. I can't think of any other drummer who could fit into the Mountain Goats' music as perfectly as this guy has. The songs didn't sound rearranged so much as we finally got to hear the drum parts that had always been there in our minds.
John was great to watch, a superb example of how to approach live performance. He was so un-self-conscious, so unconcerned with looking cool, and so totally in the moment and in his body. Jumping around, shaking his head, grinning from ear to ear or opening his mouth wide, closing his eyes and enjoying himself, the obvious pleasure he was taking in this whole experience was an odd contrast with the sad, desperate characters in his songs. But those characters were not slighted in the least: from the dying Prince Far-I in the heartbreaking story of his murder, "Sept. 15, 1983" ("Try your whole life/to be righteous and be good/wind up on your own floor/choking on blood"), to the raging, comically hateful Alpha Couple in the over-the-top rant "No Children", to the fatalistic yet defiant speedfreak from Chino getting carted off to jail in "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water", all of them were given their voices, their dignity, and their humanity. This is the core of what the Mountain Goats are and have always been all about: come for the catchy tunes and the humor, stay for the empathy.
Mid-set, Kaki joined John and company to run through the songs that make up their newly-released vinyl EP Black Pear Tree, which we will soon be (via our USB turntable) adding some cuts from to Ear Candle Radio. On one song, Kaki was on her knees assaulting a lap steel like I have never seen before. The six songs ran the gamut of both artists' ranges, and you could tell John was having the time of his life, announcing "Kaki King is so awesome it takes 18 guitars to contain her awesomeness!" It was a mutual admiration society between two extremely different talents (who share one quality: focused intensity) finding a way to collaborate. What a night.