The Mountain Goats | Water Liars April 21, 2012 The Gargoyle
I'm just going to call it now: the most common response to this review will be "I didn't know the Mountain Goats played in St. Louis this weekend." John Darnielle and his crew flew in to play a one-off show on the closing night of Washington University's KWUR week at the Gargoyle. The campus venue has been maligned in the past for the Girl Talk tazing incident, the sober Hold Steady show, and the time These Arms Are Snakes had to play with the fire alarm blaring during its whole set. From the stage, Darnielle announced that people had expressed reservations to him about the room, saying things like, "Trust me, you don't want to play there." He said this in shock, having been impressed by the fact that during one of his quietest songs ("Dinu Lipatti's Bones"), he could have heard a pin drop.
From the other side of the stage, the reason for the silence was not so much a matter of mass respectfulness as poor attendance springing from the minimal amount of promotion done for the show. I don't want to harp on the venue too hard - they're kids, they're trying. But, generally speaking, when you book one of the greatest living songwriters, you tell some people. Make a Facebook event page (tacking it onto your KWUR Week event doesn't count). Put it on your website. The crowd was mostly students, a maximum of 80 strong. This puts the ratio of attendees to security guards around ten to one.
So, as with most shows at the Gargoyle, the success of the night stemmed on the performers' ability to transcend the room's inherent discomfort. Local opener Water Liars pulled it off nobly, their set of damaged folk no more awkward than an opening set should be. For as new as the band is, Water Liars is already a strong, developed live act. When prompted by an audience member to tell a joke between songs, singer Justin Kinkel-Schuster said, "I applied to this school. They didn't let me in. That's a fucking joke." Chuckles all around.
The Mountain Goats took the stage gently with "Wild Sage." John Darnielle has one of those voices that makes you melt the second he sings into a microphone, instant distinction and familiarity. The trio of Darnielle, lanky bassist Peter Hughes and lovable Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster appeared comfortable during its hour-ish set, with a certain level of endearing looseness throughout. Darnielle frequently strummed his acoustic-electric guitar harder and faster than necessary, as if he just wanted to rock soooooo badly.
With the exception of reworkings of "Jeff Davis County Blues" and "California Song," the group dug no further back into its discography than 2002's Tallahassee album, the first "full band" Mountain Goats record -- or at least the first that was not recorded into a Sony Walkman. An early peak was "Damn These Vampires," which Darnielle introduced by saying, "This is a song about how you get irritated when somebody tries to suck your blood." There are no more adequate words than "crazy eyes" to describe his expression when singing "Sleep like dead men / Wake up like dead men." Darnielle is nothing if not a charmer. He riffed with the audience about his pink capo and gave a shout-out to former Wash U professor William H. Gass, who he called "The second best prose stylist in the country." Dedicating "Old College Try" to Gass, Darnielle said "I am going to pretend he's in the audience right now, but I'm sure he's not because he's 86 years old." His aforementioned endorsement of the Gargoyle came in the middle of a three song solo interlude in the set, where he fumbled through unrehearsed tunes and changed his mind frequently about what song he was about to play.
After a relatively quiet thirteen songs, the band closed rambunctiously with the pair of "No Children," which saw Darnielle in the crowd rubbing his face on audience members', and "This Year." The climax of the evening, for me personally, was shouting "There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year." I was not alone.
The Mountain Goats encored with "Houseguest," a cover from bassist Hughes' former group Nothing Painted Blue (Note: I had to Google that), and oldie-but-decent-y "California Song." Darnielle was guitarless on both, his mic-rocking technique not much different than Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson, albeit more paranoid. He said goodbye, the house lights went on, and the boys in light blue began herding people out of the venue. I spoke briefly and cordially to the members of Water Liars for a few minutes until a security guard approached me saying, "Excuse me. Are you making a purchase? Do you have a wristband?" Saying no to both, I was removed from the venue. There might be a show at The Gargoyle, some time in the future, where the venue itself does not shadow the event as a whole. It wasn't this one.
Personal Bias: Noted in second paragraph of this review in which I use the three words "greatest living songwriter" and then put the words "one of" beforehand in order to undermine my obsession with this man.
Random Detail: Lobby, vending machine, Choco Taco.
Overheard: "Go back to goat mountain." Unsure of context.
Gear Nerd Note To Water Liars: Russian Big Muff (the cheaper black one) > USA Big Muff.
Set List: 1. Wild Sage 2. Damn These Vampires 3. Old College Try 4. You Or Your Memory 5. Jeff Davis County Blues 6. Counterfeit Florida Plates* 7. Cotton 8. Dinu Lipatti's Bones 9. You Were Cool* 10. International Small Arms Traffic Blues 11. Southwood Plantation Road 12. Night Light* 13. Quito 14. No Children 15. This Year Encore 1. "Houseguest" by Nothing Painted Blue 2. California Song
*denotes new song, title not guaranteed to be accurate.