The Mountain Goats and Kaki King played delightfully lengthy sets at Philadelphia's Theater of the Living Arts Friday, Nov. 7, one of the last stops on the bands' aptly titled The Last Happy Night of Your Life Tour. Now, head Goater John Darnielle is the sort of performer who can pretty much play anything and blow away a crowd; he's a Bruce Springsteen, a Tom Waits, a Tori Amos. And with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster, the guy had some serious rock muscle behind him. But in order to fully appreciate his electrifying performance that night, you need to have been to at least two more Mountain Goats shows: March 20, 2008 at Philly's First Unitarian Church -- the last time the Goats played the city -- and any other set ever.
Church show was, to keep it simple and direct, pretty fucking shitty. The band was sloppy, and Darnielle was ever-so slightly ticked off at the crowd's abuse of flashbulb photo-taking. After about 35 minutes, the Mountain Goats left the stage, citing vague personal issues. Basically, Darnielle had one heck of an off night.
But here's the thing: The Mountain Goats are actually one of the best live bands touring today. You think I pass out Springsteen comparisons lightly? Darnielle is like the idealized version of your crazy Catholic uncle: slightly tipsy, affable, a goofy dancer, and a lover of fine music. He speaks to audiences like he's like they're old friends having drinks. In short, he is a cool dude.
So that's the setup, the "New Hope"-ian joy and the "Empire Strikes Back"-ish fall. Now here's the actual plot outline: Darnielle knew he let down a lot of folks last time he was in town, and he apologized for the March show several times during his set. To that end, he and his band needed to make absolutely sure every face was thoroughly rocked, every booty adequately shaken.
But first, Kaki King had to play. Good thing she rules too.
Hailing from the fine state of Georgia, King has been hailed by many guitar magazines for her dexterous, percussive guitar playing. Building off her unique acoustic style, she's developed more and more as a songwriter with each album. Her latest, this year's Dreaming of Revenge, is arguably her catchiest. It dominated the first half or so of her set, starting with opening number "Bone Chaos in the Castle." One by one, members of her backing band came out to join her as she laid down a fret-tapping frenzy. The tune accidently slid into a slow rut when drummer Matt Hankle started playing, but to be fair, he had just broken his ankle days before. Drumming is never easy when you're down a limb. Other than this hiccup, though, Hankle seemed to lock in with the band rather well.
King's 75 minutes onstage felt a bit long by their end, but the set still satisfied most in the room. The show had an ebb-and-flow to it, starting off with the jammy ambience of "Bone Chaos" and peaking with the bitter break-up song "Pull Me Out" before bottoming out with "Kewpie Station," from her solo debut, Everybody Loves You. The second half delved into the spacier arrangements of …Until We Felt Red, with the highlight being an epic performance of "You Don't Have to Be Afraid." King served up atmospheric tunes that split the difference between shoegaze and jam bands, and the crowd, who surprisingly smelled of patchouli 'n pot, dug it.
Emerging to the Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)," the Mountain Goats kicked ass from start to finish. Opening with the quiet "Have to Explode," it was clear right away that Darnielle was in a much better place. "Heretic Pride" followed, and the collective joy from the crowd when Wurster hit the beat was astounding. Darnielle's been making music for years now, but the majority of the concertgoers seemed to be too young to remember his lo-fi days firsthand. Predictably, the Heretic Pride material went over very well (It's a great album, ya jerk). "Michael Myers Resplendent," "New Zion" and "Sept 15, 1983" all went over swimmingly. Most of the set focused on TMG's hi-fi 4 AD output -- "Moon Over Goldsboro" from Get Lonely showed up, as did "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of" and "Palmcorder Yajna," from We Shall All Be Healed, during the first encore. "This Year," perhaps Darnielle's most universally loved song, closed out the regular set. Wurster really amped up the performance here, replacing the Sunset Tree song's rim clicks with snare hits. "I am going to make it through this year / If it kills me" goes the chorus, and it will always sound life-affirming. Darnielle stated before the song that he was playing it for himself, and it's a testament to his songwriting prowess that his form of self-indulgence involves playing his best songs.
There was a smattering of rarities spread throughout the set as well -- "Sinaloon Milk Snake Song" from Zopilote Machine was a personal favorite, as were "The Mess Inside" and "Source Decay" from the seminal work All Hail West Texas. There were more surprises that Darnielle asked us not to share, so I'll just say that we also scored an obscure B-side and an impromptu classic rock cover.
The Last Happy Night of Your Life Tour coincided with the release of Black Pear Tree, a tour-only vinyl split between Kaki King and the Mountain Goats. King joined TMG halfway through their set to perform some of those songs, including "Bring Our Curses Home," "Mosquito Repellent," the title track, and a searingly psychedelic version of "Supergenesis" that needs to be experienced live by every living being in the cosmos. They also covered Morrissey's "Suedehead," which was thrilling, but "Supergenesis" is what stays with me. King conjured up layer after layer of dissonance, My Bloody Valentine-style, over Darnielle's first-person narrative about the fall of the serpent from the book of Genesis. Epic? Yes. Metal? Kinda, yeah. The EP itself is a mellow, gorgeous experience, but its folk structures were far more rock-ish that night.
Darnielle was liberated from his guitar for the Mountain Goats' second encore, a cover of "Houseguest" by Franklin Bruno. This was a good thing, because I learned an important, satori-like truth: John Darnielle is a delirious dancer. He cavorted around the stage, sensually grabbing fans by the hair and promising them that he was unquestionably the best houseguest they'd ever had. And gosh dang was he right.