Following a long ride on the El last night (is that how natives call it?) out to the far reaches of Chicago, accompanied by a lovely homeless man who kept trying to touch my shoulder without dropping his can of malt beverage, I saw John Vanderslice and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats on their “Gone Primitive” tour at Chicago’s grand old Portage Theater.
The last time I saw the Mountain Goats, I proclaimed an earnest declaration of permanent affection for the way that show made me feel and the literate, stabbing richness of John Darnielle’s music. After last night, yeah, I feel the same plus some.
The 1,100 seat ornate old theater (which still screens old films and has a Wurlitzer organ) was packed to the gills with fans last night. Since the last time I saw Darnielle was in a small rock club venue with sticky floors, all of us packed tightly and dancing side by side, it felt oddly sterile to be sitting 14 inches apart in velvety chairs, so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Therefore what happened next felt especially excellent.
After three or four songs of well-behaved silence, one brave fan walked right up to the edge of the stage and stood there in appreciation to enjoy the show. Warily, a few other folks eyed the door guards, watching to see what they would do, and then walked forward to join Brave Superfan as well. I jumped to my feet. Within 30 seconds, a stream of kids ran down the aisles to pool against the stage, smiles on their face, ready to sing and jump along.
Darnielle beamed, and suddenly the show felt much more right. With perfect timing and furious strumming, the next song he launched into was “Up The Wolves,” an absolute favorite of mine.
“There’s bound to be a ghost in the back of your closet, no matter where you live. There’s gonna be a few things, maybe several things, you’re gonna find really difficult to forgive. There’s gonna come a day when you feel better, you’ll rise up free and easy on that day…and float from branch to branch, lighter than the air, when that day is coming, who can say, who can say?”
Up The Wolves – Mountain Goats
Whereas last year’s anthem for me was the song “This Year,” and when I saw them in October it took all my ferocious determination to yell those words, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me…” — last night I resonated much more with the words of rising up free and easy. And thank God.
The solo acoustic setlist included some rarer gems (like “Beach House” about how you don’t want to toy with wily seals) and the gut-wrenching spectrum of tunes like “Woke Up New,” “You Or Your Memory,” and “Surrounded.” He closed with “This Year,” and encored with the divorce epic “No Children.” Walking out on the wooden box over the Wurlitzer, I watched the crowd jump and yell and pump their fists in catharsis, finding some sort of common meaning in those terribly depressing lyrics (“I hope it stays dark forever, I hope the worst isn’t over, and I hope you blink before I do, and I hope I never get sober“). Everything about his music resonates so strongly with me, and he puts on one of the most intelligent, challenging, passionate shows I’ve seen.
John Vanderslice opened the night with stripped down, beautifully rendered versions of his densely orchestrated songs, and then played alongside Darnielle for several songs at the end of the night. Vanderslice is an artist that I have always esteemed and enjoyed, but never seen live or explored deeply. I found myself wondering last night why that is so. Armed only with his acoustic guitar and harmonies, he reminded me very much of another favorite artist of mine, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf. Since I love his music, there is no good reason why I am not equally passionate about Vanderslice. I’m on it.
What a cathartic night.